Migration patterns linked to genetic differences in NZ seabirds

01 June 2011

UC conservation and evolutionary geneticist Dr Tammy Steeves (Biological Sciences) is part of an international research collaboration that has revealed new information about migrating bird behaviour.

UC conservation and evolutionary geneticist Dr Tammy Steeves (Biological Sciences) is part of an international research collaboration that has revealed new information about migrating bird behaviour.

The groundbreaking NIWA-led research, investigating the annual movements of New Zealand seabirds migrating within the Pacific Ocean, has revealed that populations are genetically distinct and have been for centuries as a result of their differing migration behavior.

The research, published by the journal Nature Communications, studied the migratory behaviour and genetics of two populations of Cook's petrel, a small 200g seabird that breeds only in New Zealand. It surprisingly revealed that the populations are not interbreeding despite the fact they could easily visit each others' colonies during breeding.

Dr Steeves says previous studies had shown that birds at different breeding colonies were more likely to be genetically different if they foraged in different areas during the non-breeding season but how this led to genetic differences was unclear.

"Bringing together expertise in genetics, ecology and behaviour we were able to show that habitat specialisation during the non-breeding season leads to birds at different colonies breeding at different times, which in conjunction with a strong tendency to return to the colony where they were born, restricts interbreeding between colonies," says Dr Steeves.

Migratory seabirds are some of the most mobile in the world - they can travel over 1000 km in a day.
"You'd think that interbreeding between populations would be very common where birds can easily visit other breeding locations for their species. What we found is that migrating to different locations contributes to genetic differences between seabird populations," says NIWA scientist Dr Matt Rayner.

Until recently it has been impossible to track many small seabirds at sea over long periods. This research conducted between 2008 and 2010 used new geolocators which are lightweight tracking devices that are attached to the birds' legs and weigh only 2 grams. The data is retrieved from the geolocator when the bird returns to New Zealand.

"We found that seabirds from one Cook's petrel population breeding on Little Barrier Island migrated across the equator to the North Pacific Ocean, whereas birds from Codfish Island stayed within the South Pacific, and migrated to the waters off South America," says Dr Rayner.

The scientists looked at DNA from tissue samples of old Cook's petrel skins, collected within the North Pacific and South Pacific destinations of the tracked birds, but over 100 years ago. The skins were housed in museums in the USA.

"We found that the DNA from these skins matched perfectly the DNA of the modern populations, confirming the populations have been migrating and adapting to those different locations for a long time.

"Many New Zealand seabirds survive by experiencing an endless summer, living and breeding in productive waters north and south of the equator," says Dr Rayner.

The scientists now plan to investigate the implications of specific seabird populations migrating to destinations that might be impacted by climate change or recent disasters like Fukushima. Many New Zealand seabirds forage off the eastern coast of Japan during the New Zealand winter.

For more information please contact:
Maria De Cort
Communications Officer
Communications and External Relations
University of Canterbury
Ph: 027 299 0741


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