Pioneering genetic research by New Zealand scientists could help protect hundreds of endangered species around the world.

University of Canterbury researchers are developing what will be the world's first genomic blueprint for boosting genetic diversity among bird species being managed in captive breeding for release programmes.

A critical goal of recovery programmes is to ensure endangered species retain enough genetic diversity to adapt to changes in their environment, brought on by pressures such as climate change, habitat loss or introduced predators.

Where programmes use captive management to recover wild populations, picking appropriate breeding pairs is crucial, as unique genetic diversity may be held in only a few, easily lost, individuals.


A new million-dollar project using of a potentially game-changing genomic approach that has emerged only in recent times aims to give conservationists the best option for pairing captive birds for breeding.

It has its roots in work focused on the critically endangered kaki, or black stilt, one of the world's rarest wading birds, whose predominantly wild population near Twizel has been pulled back from only around 23 adults in the early 1980s to approximately 93 today.

However, these slender but rugged birds remain at risk of being wiped out by introduced predators and habitat loss.

Canterbury University scientist Dr Tammy Steeves, who has been working with kaki for more than a decade, said the handful of DNA markers previously used to inform breeding decisions hadn't offered a full enough picture of their genome, or simply too few puzzle pieces of their complete genetic jigsaw.

In a species were there were just eight genetic markers with which to estimate relatedness between birds, sequencing kaki genomes will equip scientists with tens of thousands of genomic markers, or single nucleotide polymorphisms, commonly called "snips".

Each snip represents a variation in the DNA sequence that occurs when a single nucleotide in the bird's genome differs between that of another individual of the species, providing a powerful tool for boosting genome-wide genetic diversity.

Steeves said the scientific foundation laid with work around kaki will enable other institutes around the world to use the same genomic approach for their own bird conservation programmes.

New Zealand runs about 20 captive breeding-for-release programmes where the approach could prove helpful, and there are more than 400 across the planet.

She's been involved with the B10K initiative, a global effort to generate genomes for 10,000 bird species, whose research has already shown that bird genomes are relatively small.

Dr Tammy Steeves with a juvenile kaki at the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust. Photo: Stephanie Galla
Dr Tammy Steeves with a juvenile kaki at the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust. Photo: Stephanie Galla

"They're also relatively highly conserved, which basically means where a gene is in one bird, it's going to be more or less in the same place in another bird, and also, the order that genes are in doesn't tend to change too much from bird to bird."

Steeves wanted to develop a proof-of-concept guide using the kaki as a reference genome, as well as the killdeer, a relatively closely related species of plover found across the Western Hemisphere.

Using these birds as genomic benchmarks could offer scientists a fast, efficient and cost-saving way to make their captive pairing decisions quickly, she said.

Particularly for conserving critically endangered birds, she saw this as much better method than relying on the "gold standard" of using a pedigree, an approach that is often unavailable to captive breeding-for-release programmes because many birds sourced from the wild have unknown or uncertain heritage.

She hoped that, by the end of the three-year study, she could look to species beyond birds, such as lizards, frogs and insects.

"But it does get a little bit more challenging when you go beyond birds, just because other species can have bigger and more complicated genomes."

The study is supported by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment's Endeavour Fund.

NZ's batman turns birdman

You'll usually find him championing our native bats, but now Ben Paris is jumping behind winged creatures of a different kind for a nationwide competition.

The Auckland Council senior biodiversity adviser, better known as NZ Batman, is backing the tiny, fragile and endangered New Zealand dotterel in Forest and Bird's annual Bird of the Year competition.

Paris, among a number of high-profile Kiwis backing different birds, said dotterels were as rare as our North Island brown kiwi and a key part of Auckland's summer, nesting at sites on both of the region's coasts.

"However, they need their space to look after their youngsters, who hide cryptically in the sand above the high tide mark," he said.

"Despite their many threats from people, dogs and predators, there is a very passionate community across Auckland dedicated to looking after these special shorebirds."

Auckland Council biodiversity ranger Ben Paris, aka NZ Batman, is backing the NZ dotterel in Forest and Bird's 2016 Bird of the Year competition. Photo: Philip Moll
Auckland Council biodiversity ranger Ben Paris, aka NZ Batman, is backing the NZ dotterel in Forest and Bird's 2016 Bird of the Year competition. Photo: Philip Moll

His team runs a New Zealand dotterel minders network, where community volunteers advise each other while conducting monitoring and pest control to help shorebirds across the region.

There are two sub-species; the southern New Zealand dotterel, and the northern New Zealand dotterel, which is found on or near the coast around much of the upper North Island.

"In urban areas like Auckland they often breed a little inland - urban parks, mall car parks, golf courses, motorway verges and beside airport runways, building sites and quarries," Paris said.

"Adults use distractions, such as pretending to have a broken wing, to try and lure predators away from their nests."

Besides voting for them in the competition - closing on Sunday - Paris said people could help the dotterels by keeping near the water when they walk along beaches, and not letting their dogs chase birds.

People can donate to help different birds and take part in the competition, scooped last year by the bar-tailed godwit, by visiting the website.

The winner will be announced on Monday.