Genome of nearly extinct Hawaiian crow sequenced in effort to revive species

Hawaii is looking to increase its murder rate….But maybe not in the way you think.

The ‘alalā, or Hawaiian crow (Corvus hawaiiensis), has been extinct in the wild since 2002, but a conservation program out of San Diego Zoo Global managed to preserve the species in their Hawaiian bird centers, and through careful breeding brought the population up from its lowest point of about 20 crows.

Following this bottleneck, scientists have grown concerned about a lack of genetic diversity in the ‘alalā. And so, as announced at the Plant and Animal Genomics XXIV Conference in San Diego, a collaboration between PacBio, San Diego Zoo Global, and the University of Hawaii sequenced the genome of the birds, in order to track and counteract any issues that arise from a genetic paucity.

Up until now, researchers have been able to keep the genes diverse enough for the species to survive, but now that they have achieved their original goal—to raise the population to 75 or more birds—it’s time for the crows to leave the nest.

“We have been working for many years to build up a large enough — and genetically diverse enough — population to allow us to begin putting the ‘Alalā back in the wild,” said Bryce Masuda, conservation program manager of the San Diego Zoo’s Hawaii Endangered Bird Conservation Program, in a San Diego Zoo Global statement. “We have achieved our goal, and are now preparing to release birds into the wild in 2016.”

Returning to their native habitat

The birds—which were originally driven to the brink of extinction thanks to habitat loss, newly introduced predators, and newly imported diseases—will soon be flying in their native forests on the island of Hawaii. But there are unknown dangers associated with reintroducing the crows; should their now more limited genes prove unable to adapt properly to the environment, they could face extinction once more. Hence, the genome project.

“Learning more about the genome of the species can help us understand more about how that species will interact with and fit back into its native habitat,” said Jolene Sutton, assistant professor at the University of Hawaii, Hilo.

“Through scientific collaboration with PacBio, we now have a map of ‘Alalā DNA that could prove critical to their long term recovery. We are absolutely thrilled with the quality of the sequencing, and we have already identified several gene locations that we think could have a big influence on reintroduction success.”

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Feature Image: The Hawaiian crow (Corvus hawaiiensis). (Credit: Zoological Society of San Diego)

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