Environment How the past could save the future of a bird on the brink

How the past could save the future of a bird on the brink

The southern black-throated finch is a small bird with big problems.

The native Australian woodland species is already extinct in NSW and endangered in Queensland.

Development plans in its last stronghold, the Galilee Basin, could see the bird lose a further 57 per cent of its remaining habitat.

Now Australian researchers are turning to the past to make sure the fragile finch has a future.

The researchers from Western Sydney University and the Australian National University are comparing the DNA of living wild birds with 100-year-old museum specimens.

It’s hoped this genetic decoding — or genomics — will tell researchers whether the remaining birds have enough of the species’ original genes to survive and thrive if habitat is restored.

If not, then the results could be used to “reintroduce” genes via future captive breeding and release programs.

“Genomics is a powerful new tool in the conservationist’s arsenal,” said team leader Dr Kerensa McElroy from the Australian National University.

“Near extinction leaves its mark on a species’ DNA, and by decoding this DNA signal, we can glean vital clues about the extent and nature of the black-throated finch’s demise.”

“Our results will be crucial to the design of future captive breeding programs.”

According to Western Sydney University’s Dr Alexie Papanicolaou, more than 477 species of birds, reptiles and mammals have gone extinct since 1900.

“Without humans, it is likely that all but nine of these would still be with us today,” he said.

“If we can save the southern black-throated finch, we’ll actually save a whole ecosystem, as these iconic birds are charismatic ambassadors for threatened woodland communities.”

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