Above: The survival of the Critically Endangered Puerto Rican Amazon parrot  depends on successful captive-breeding for the widest possible genetic diversity. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Tom MacKenzie of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region


SCIENTISTS MAPPING THE genome of three Amazon  parrots say the lack of  genetic diversity they found  in the recent history of the  species reinforces the need  for conservation efforts.

A team led by Dr Taras Oleksyk of Oakland University in the United States studied three species of  Amazon parrot. The Cuban (Amazona leucocephala) is Near Threatened with a falling population estimated at 13,600- 23,000 across Cuba,  the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands. The Hispaniolan (A. ventralis), once plentiful across Haiti, the Dominican Republic and  Puerto Rico, is now Vulnerable with an estimated  6,000-15,000 population that is also decreasing.

Meanwhile, estimates of fewer than 50 of the Critically Endangered Puerto Rican Amazon (A. vittata) in the wild make it one of the 10 most endangered species worldwide.

It is known that genetic diversity is vital to the adaptability and long-term survival of species. Dr Oleksyk, commenting on the team’s results testing captive birds, said: “As expected, these parrots do not have much  genetic variation left. This finding stresses the need for further conservation efforts.”

Planned and existing  programmes for the species  include protected zones  and habitat preservation;  monitored release of captive-bred birds; legislation and education. Local bird  conservationists are being  taught both the need to  stop capturing wild birds, and also how better care of captive parrots can extend their lifespan, so reducing the market for wild-caught birds.

The issue of genetic  diversity is especially critical for the Puerto Rican. Once numbering more than a million, it was the Puerto Rican Amazon which played a crucial role in seed dispersal.

“These parrots are the gardeners of the island, and as they’ve gone, the trees that have been cut down  can’t come back,” Dr Oleksyk explained.

Since the species only  nests in the hollow trunks of the trees, the spiral would be ever-downward without human assistance.

Current conservation efforts include controlling predators such as the black rat, and captive-breeding at El Yunque and Rio Abajo, which currently number about 280 birds between them. The captive birds are being managed to preserve as much genetic diversity as  possible for managed and  monitored release. Successful wild breeding has been recorded among the small  but growing new flocks.

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