George Olah

Australian National University

Project summary

Genetic studies are important tools for understanding conservation issues such as the impact on fauna of habitat fragmentation, degradation and loss. This study was initiated in October, 2009, with the major objectives of (1) understanding and documenting the current population genetic structure of Scarlet Macaw (Ara macao) populations in SE Peru; (2) assessing the feasibility of genetic tagging, a novel non-invasive technique for identification of individuals by genetic markers, for measuring home-range, dispersal, and population structure; and (3) applying our techniques to specific conservation issues. These include documenting the effect of fragmentation due to the recently built Inter-oceanic Highway running through the study site; investigating the degree of isolation of the Scarlet Macaw population in the isolated Candamo Valley with the view to making informed recommendations for protecting this biodiversity hotspot; and introducing the genetic tagging technique to other species of endangered macaws.

Macaws at Collpa ChunchoThis is the first project of its kind, and is intended to provide a broad-based genetic tool for the conservation of wild parrots. We will capitalize on two enormous advantages. First, we will have direct access to the research outcomes of the recently launched Scarlet Macaw Genome Project. The extensive knowledge of the scarlet macaw genome will enable effective development of highly variable genetic markers that will enable powerful insights into the population processess of wild macaws. Second, we will have access to extraordinarily large number of samples from feathers dropped at clay licks on the river systems of SE Peru. Macaws in Peru visit clay licks to supplement their diet with minerals and toxin-absorbing clays (Gilardi et al. 1999; Burger and Gochfeld 2003; Brightsmith 2004), and large numbers of naturally dropped feathers are left behind. Our study area includes the highest clay lick distribution in South America. This offers us a perfect place to collect molted macaw feathers year-round.

The process of dispersal is poorly understood for most species yet plays a crucial role in populations. Dispersal shapes distribution patterns, affects population regulation and stability, influences extinction and recolonization dynamics in patchy populations and metapopulations, and controls patterns of gene flow. We will indirectly evaluate the dispersal patterns of Scarlet Macaw through the analysis of population genetic structure and more directly by employing genetic tagging to assess the movement of individuals. This will provide a much needed perspective for understanding the response of species to landscape change and habitat fragmentation.

View from a nest in Candamo