“Genetic rescue” mission to save the endangered oriental bristle bird from extinction

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The eastern bristle bird is a small, stealthy bird that lives on the ground in dense undergrowth and camouflages itself very well. But that’s not why they are getting harder and harder to spot.

Only about 2,500 eastern bristled birds are left in the wild, distributed among isolated populations of eastern New South Wales and southern Queensland.

In an effort to save the species from extinction, environmentalists are using a technique known as “genetic rescue”.

Kelly Roche, chief endangered species officer for the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment, said small, disconnected populations of birds could result in low genetic diversity.

This, in turn, compromised the species’ ability to reproduce and left the birds vulnerable to threats such as wildlife, habitat loss, disease, and the impacts of climate change.

An oriental bristle bird is captured and released during fieldwork in Budderoo National Park in the Illawarra region.(Provided: Department of Planning, Industry and Environment)

“This is why, as part of the Save Our Species program, we are taking advantage of a cutting-edge conservation technique known as ‘genetic rescue’ in an effort to reverse the trend of silky birds becoming extinct. Eastern New South Wales.

“We are trying to reverse the decline in genetic diversity.”

How does “genetic rescue” work?

Genetic rescue begins with examining the genetic diversity of populations of oriental bristled birds.

The species has four distinct and separate populations: one in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, including Border Ranges National Park; two central populations, including the Southern Highlands and Jervis Bay regions; and a southern population around the NSW / Victorian border, including Nadgee Nature Reserve and Croajingolong National Park.

“The oriental bristle bird is very difficult to spot in the wild, it actually traverses the undergrowth more like a small mammal than a bird,” Ms. Roche said.

The rangers set up a thin net in a bush area.
Kelly Roche, Shannon Maguire and David Charley help set up a mist net for the Oriental Bristle Bird in the Border Ranges area.(Provided: Department of Planning, Industry and Environment)

The genetic rescue program will involve carefully choosing breeding individuals from the largest populations and introducing them to the smallest.

It is carried out in conjunction with a captive breeding program.

“We have 24 birds from the northern population in the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary Captive Breeding Program,” Ms. Roche said.

“What we did was go around all the major populations of the species, catch birds, take a tiny bit of DNA from the birds, and then analyze that information to determine what the genetic characteristics are.

“We will use this knowledge to selectively breed birds from different populations, with the aim of improving disease resistance, increasing genetic diversity and increasing fertility rates, especially in the smaller population of birds. located in northern New South Wales. “

Breeding program in progress

A group of rangers stand in the bush, with the sun low in the sky.
Oriental bristle bird monitoring and field work is underway at Barren Grounds Nature Reserve in the Southern Highlands.(Provided: Department of Planning, Industry and Environment)

Ms Roche said researchers were already seeing areas of the highest genetic diversity.

“So far the information suggests that we can use some of the larger genetic diversity that we see in one of the central populations to mix with the northern population in the captive breeding program,” said she declared.

Ms Roche said a small number of these wild birds will be collected and introduced into the captive breeding program so that they can interbreed and improve the genetic profile of this population.

The birds raised in captivity will then be gradually released into the wild.

“This will increase their numbers in a more efficient way than simply relying on the natural expansion that occurs as we slowly restore habitat in the wild… the end goal is to see resilient populations of birds. healthy in nature. “

A woman stands in a ranger uniform holding a pole in an area of ​​bush and grass,
Caroline Blackmore at Barren Grounds Nature Reserve(Provided: Department of Planning, Industry and Environment)

The Genetic Rescue Project is being undertaken in collaboration with Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS), Caesar Australia, the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), University of Queensland, Parks Australia and the Australian Department of Defense .

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