Something to Crow About: Hawaiian ‘Alalā Genome Sequenced

August 1, 2018, 8:41 AM HST · Updated August 1, 8:44 AM
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PC: Pacific Biosciences/ Pacbio

In a new scientific publication, researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi and the San Diego Zoo’s conservation research program report a major milestone in efforts to rescue and reintroduce the ‘Alalā.

Hawai‘i’s native crow is so endangered that it survived for years only through captive breeding programs.  As of March, the entire ‘Alalā population consisted of just 142 living members.

In Hawaiian mythology, the ‘Alalā is said to lead souls to their final resting place on the cliffs of Ka Lae, the southernmost tip on the Big Island of Hawai‘i.

As one of the largest native bird populations, it also had a vital role in the ecosystem, helping to disperse and germinate seeds of many indigenous plant species.

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Genomics has given conservation experts a powerful new tool to help protect endangered species.

Genome assemblies can help scientists understand certain factors that put species at increased risk of extinction, such as degree of inbreeding or fertility challenges. But the information is most revealing only when the genome assembly for the species is of very high quality with as few gaps as possible.

The newly reported ‘Alalā assembly, generated with highly accurate sequencing technology from Pacific Biosciences, is considered to be “one of the highest quality avian genomes currently available,” according to the paper. The availability of new gene-level information has shed light on how inbred the remaining birds are, as well as important new details about genes involved in immune function.

The new genome assembly will inform breeding strategies to help ensure that the next generation of ‘Alalā birds are healthier than their parents, giving the species a new degree of resilience by avoiding continued inbreeding and selecting pairs of birds most likely to reproduce successfully.

“As the size of both the captive and wild ‘Alalā populations continue to increase,” the scientists conclude in the paper, “the integration of genomic data as part of the conservation management effort will help to maximize the genetic health of the species well into the future.”

*Video courtesy San Diego Zoo

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