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Population trends, threats, and conservation recommendations for waterbirds in China

(Xiaodan Wang, Fenliang Kuang, Kun Tan and Zhijun M 28 April 2018)

Background

China is one of the countries with abundant waterbird diversity. Over the past decades, China’s waterbirds have suffered increasing threats from direct and indirect human activities. It is important to clarify the population trends of and threats to waterbirds as well as to put forward conservation recommendations.

Methods

We collected data of population trends of a total of 260 waterbird species in China from Wetlands International database. We calculated the number of species with increasing, declining, stable, and unknown trends. We collected threatened levels of waterbirds from the Red List of China’s Vertebrates (2016), which was compiled according to the IUCN criteria of threatened species. Based on literature review, we refined the major threats to the threatened waterbird species in China.

Results

Of the total 260 waterbird species in China, 84 species (32.3%) exhibited declining, 35 species (13.5%) kept stable, and 16 species (6.2%) showed increasing trends. Population trends were unknown for 125 species (48.1%). There was no significant difference in population trends between the migratory (32.4% decline) and resident (31.8% decline) species or among waterbirds distributed exclusively along coasts (28.6% decline), inland (36.6% decline), and both coasts and inland (32.5% decline). A total of 38 species (15.1% of the total) were listed as threatened species and 27 species (10.8% of the total) Near Threatened species. Habitat loss was the major threat to waterbirds, with 32 of the total 38 (84.2%) threatened species being affected. In addition, 73.7% (28 species), 71.1% (27 species), and 57.9% (22 species) of the threatened species were affected by human disturbance, environmental pollution, and illegal hunting, respectively.

Conclusions

We propose recommendations for waterbird conservation, including (1) strengthening conservation of nature wetlands and restoration of degraded wetlands, (2) enhancing public awareness on waterbird conservation, (3) improving the enforcement of Wildlife Protection Law and cracking down on illegal hunting, (4) carrying out long-term waterbird surveys to clarify population dynamics, (5) restoring populations of highly-threatened species through artificial intervention, and (6) promoting international and regional exchanges and cooperation to share information in waterbirds and their conservation.

 

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A total of 38 species (14.6% of the total) have been listed as threatened species, including 6 species (2.4%) being listed as Critically Endangered, 16 species (6.4%) Endangered, and 16 species Vulnerable (6.4%). Another 27 species (10.8%) were listed as Near Threatened (Table 2). In addition, 54 species (21.5%) were not assessed due to data deficiency or their marginal distribution in China. The threatened species were mainly in the Orders of Gruiformes (10 species), Charadriiformes (10 species), Anseriformes (8 species), and Pelecaniformes (8 species). The highest proportion of threatened species was in the Order of Ciconiiformes (40.0%) (Table 3). Although the percentage of threatened waterbird species in China (15.1% of the total) was slightly lower than that the global level (18.8%) (Wetland International 2012), the percentage of non-assessed species in China (21.5%) was much higher than that globally (0.4%).TABELL.PNG

Read the complete research report here

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What is a species? Bird expert develops a math formula to solve the problem

(Pennsoft Publishers: Thomas Donegan, Blanca Huertas, Christian Olaciregui, 10 May 2018)
Whether co-habiting populations belong to the same species is only as tough as figuring out if they interbreed or produce fertile offspring. On the other hand, when populations are geographically separated, biologists often struggle to determine whether they represent different species or merely subspecies. To address the age-long issue, a British bird expert has developed a new universal mathematical formula for determining what is a species.

Nature is replete with examples of identifiable populations known from different continents, mountain ranges, islands or lowland regions. While, traditionally, many of these have been treated as subspecies of widely-ranging species, recent studies relying on molecular biology have shown that many former “subspecies” have in fact been isolated for millions of years, which is long enough for them to have evolved into separate species.

Being a controversial matter in taxonomy — the science of classification — the ability to tell apart different species from subspecies across faunal groups is crucial. Given limited resources for conservation, relevant authorities tend only to be concerned for threatened species, with their efforts rarely extending to subspecies.

Figuring out whether co-habiting populations belong to the same species is only as tough as testing if they can interbreed or produce fertile offspring. However, whenever distinct populations are geographically separated, it is often that taxonomists struggle to determine whether they represent different species or merely subspecies of a more widely ranging species.

British bird expert Thomas Donegan has dedicated much of his life to studying birds in South America, primarily Colombia. To address this age-long issue of “what is a species?,” he applied a variety of statistical tests, based on data derived from bird specimens and sound recordings, to measure differences across over 3000 pairwise comparisons of different variables between populations.

Having analyzed the outcomes of these tests, he developed a new universal formula for determining what can be considered as a species. His study is published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

Essentially, the equation works by measuring differences for multiple variables between two non-co-occurring populations, and then juxtaposing them to the same results for two related populations which do occur together and evidently belong to different “good” species. If the non-co-occurring pair’s differences exceed those of the good species pair, then the former can be ranked as species. If not, they are subspecies of the same species instead.

The formula builds on existing good taxonomic practices and borrows from optimal aspects of previously proposed mathematical models proposed for assessing species in particular groups, but brought together into a single coherent structure and formula that can be applied to any taxonomic group. It is, however, presented as a benchmark rather than a hard test, to be used together with other data, such as analyses of molecular data.

Thomas hopes that his mathematical formula for species rank assessments will help eliminate some of the subjectivity, regional bias and lumper-splitter conflicts which currently pervade the discipline of taxonomy.

“If this new approach is used, then it should introduce more objectivity to taxonomic science and ultimately mean that limited conservation resources are addressed towards threatened populations which are truly distinct and most deserving of our concern,” he says.

The problem with ranking populations that do not co-occur together was first identified back in 1904. Since then, most approaches to addressing such issues have been subjective or arbitrary or rely heavily upon expert opinion or historical momentum, rather than any objectively defensible or consistent framework.

For example, the American Herring Gull and the European Herring Gull are lumped by some current taxonomic committees into the same species (Herring Gull), or are split into two species by other committees dealing with different regions, simply because relevant experts at those committees have taken different views on the issue.

“For tropical faunas, there are thousands of distinctive populations currently treated as subspecies and which are broadly ignored in conservation activities,” explains Thomas. “Yet, some of these may be of conservation concern. This new framework should help us better to identify and prioritize those situations.”

Russian cuckoo invasion spells trouble for Alaskan birds, study finds

(Diana Yates, University of Illinois; 7  May 2018)

Common cuckoos and oriental cuckoos in eastern Russia appear to be expanding their breeding range into western Alaska, where songbirds are naive to the cuckoos’ wily ways, researchers report. A new study suggests the North American birds could suffer significant losses if cuckoos become established in Alaska.

Like brown-headed cowbirds, cuckoos are “brood parasites,” laying their eggs in the nests of other species, said University of Illinois animal biology professor Mark Hauber, who led the new research with Vladimir Dinets of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Cuckoos time their egg-laying so that their chicks will hatch first. The chicks then kick the other eggs out of the nest, “thereby eliminating the entire reproductive success of their hosts,” Hauber said.

“Brood parasitism is a rare strategy among birds. Only about 1 percent of birds engage in it,” he said. “Obligate brood parasites do it always. They never build a nest, they never incubate the eggs, they never feed their chicks. Instead, they sneak their eggs into somebody else’s nest, forcing the foster parent to take care of the young.”

Birdwatchers and ornithologists occasionally report seeing oriental cuckoos and common cuckoos in Alaska, and Alaskan natural history museums already contain a handful of cuckoo specimens collected locally, Hauber said. These birds are likely traveling from sites in Beringia, in eastern Russia.

“We don’t have evidence of them breeding in Alaska, but it’s likely already occurring,” Hauber said. “We wanted to know whether the potential Alaskan hosts are ready for this cuckoo invasion.”

In the new study, researchers tested whether more than a dozen Alaskan bird species had evolved defenses to counter the cuckoos’ parasitic ways. Such defenses are common among bird species that frequently encounter brood parasites elsewhere.

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Woodpeckers show signs of possible brain damage, but that might not be a bad thing

(Field Museum, ScienceDaily 2 February 2018; Photo:Arlene Koziol)

With woodpeckers, the answer’s in the question—true to their name, they peck wood. And when they do, they peck hard—with each peck, the bird undergoes a force of 1,200 to 1,400 g’s. By comparison, a measly force of 60-100 g’s can give a human a concussion. The fact that a woodpecker can undergo fourteen times that without getting hurt has led helmet makers to model their designs around these birds’ skulls. However, a new study in PLOS ONE complicates this story by showing that woodpecker brains contain build-ups of a protein associated with brain damage in humans.

“There have been all kinds of safety and technological advances in sports equipment based on the anatomic adaptations and biophysics of the woodpecker assuming they king. The weird thing is, nobody’s ever looked at a woodpecker brain to see if there is any damage,” says Peter Cummings of the Boston University School of Medicine, one of the new study’s authors.

To find the answer to this question, researchers used bird brains from the collections of The Field Museum and the Harvard Museum of Natural History and examined them for accumulation of a specific protein, called tau.

“The basic cells of the brain are neurons, which are the cell bodies, and axons, which are like telephone lines that communicate between the neurons. The tau protein wraps around the telephone lines—it gives them protection and stability while still letting them remain flexible,” explains lead author George Farah, who worked on the study as a graduate student at the Boston University School of Medicine.

In moderation, tau proteins can be helpful in stabilizing brain cells, but too much tau build-up can disrupt communication from one neuron to another. “When the brain is damaged, tau collects and disrupts nerve function—cognitive, emotional, and motor function can be compromised,” says Cummings.

Since excessive tau can be a sign of brain damage in humans, Farah and his team decided to examine woodpecker brains for tau build-up. The Field Museum and Harvard loaned the researchers bird specimens pickled in alcohol—Downy Woodpeckers for the experimental data and non-head-injury-prone Red-winged Blackbirds as a control. The researchers then removed the birds’ brains—“The brains themselves were well-preserved, they had a texture almost like modeling clay,” says Farah—and took incredibly thin slices, less than a fifth the thickness of a sheet of paper. The slices of brain tissue were then stained with silver ions to highlight the tau proteins present.

The verdict: the woodpeckers’ brains had far more tau protein accumulation than the blackbirds’ brains. However, while excessive tau buildup can be a sign of brain damage in humans, the researchers note that this might not be the case for woodpeckers. “We can’t say that these woodpeckers definitely sustained brain injuries, but there is extra tau present in the woodpecker brains, which previous research has discovered is indicative of brain injury,” says Farah.

“The earliest woodpeckers date back 25 million years—these birds have been around for a long time,” says Cummings. “If pecking was going to cause brain injury, why would you still see this behavior? Why would evolutionary adaptations stop at the brain? There’s possibility that the tau in woodpeckers is a protective adaptation and maybe not pathological at all.”

So, woodpeckers show signs of what looks like brain damage in humans, but it might not be a bad thing. Either way, the researchers believe that the study’s results could help us humans. For example, the knowledge about woodpecker brains that could help make football equipment safer for kds, says Cummings. On the other hand, he notes, “If the tau accumulation is a protective adaptation, is there something we can pick out to help humans with neurodegenerative diseases? The door’s wide open to find out what’s going on and how we can apply this to humans.”

Farah notes that the study relied heavily upon the museum collections that the bird brains came from. “Museums are gateways to the past and a source of new innovation,” he says. “The role of museums in this project was immense—we couldn’t have done our study with just one woodpecker.”

Ben Marks, The Field Museum’s Collections Manager of Birds, said of the researchers’ request to use the Museum’s bird brains, “With one of the world’s best bird collections, we’re always trying to let people know what we have, why we have it, and what it can be used for. We get over a hundred requests for specimen loans every year—this one stood out because it was a novel approach that had real world applications. Some of the specimens used in this study were collected in the 1960s. Our staff cared for them for over 50 years before until they were requested for this study and used in a way the original collector couldn’t even envision.”

Social interactions override genetics when birds learn new songs

(Nicholas Weiler, 26 Dec 2017)

New UC San Francisco research finds that although young male songbirds are genetically predisposed to sound like their fathers, enriched early experience with a foster-father can overcome this genetic destiny. This finding has striking implications for our thinking about how experience influences the genetics of complex human traits like learning ability or even psychiatric disease, the authors say.

Neuroscientists like UCSF’s Michael Brainard, Ph.D., have long studied songbirds like the Bengalese finch (Lonchura striata domestica) as a model of how complex behaviors like human language are shaped by early experience. Like human language, a male finch’s unique mating song is learned early in life by listening to and mimicking adult “tutors.” In nature, this is usually the bird’s father, but young birds raised by unrelated adults in the lab will learn to sing their foster-father’s song instead.

Now Brainard’s lab has shown that not all early experiences are equal in their influence over impressionable young birds: exposed only to a computerized “synthetic tutor,” young birds will revert to singing like a biological father they’ve never known or heard. The research—published the week of December 25, 2017 in PNAS—suggests that finch song has a stronger genetic component than had previously been realized, but also that this genetic drive can be suppressed by the right kind of early life experience.

“What we saw is that the genetic contribution to a bird’s song depends on the specifics of that bird’s experience. This is a striking demonstration that heritability for complex behaviors like birdsong is not fixed, as is often assumed, but instead can vary dramatically depending on the experience of an individual,” said Brainard, a professor of physiology and of psychiatry at UCSF, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences.

As noted, researchers have long considered the structure of adult birdsong to be dominated by the influence of whatever song a bird hears as a chick. However, David Mets, Ph.D., a postdoctoral scholar in the Brainard lab and the new paper’s first author, noticed a surprising amount of variation between the songs of individual Bengalese finches in the lab, even when all birds were exposed to the same experimentally controlled tutor song early in life.

To determine whether these differences might be caused by a previously overlooked genetic contribution to the birds’ song, Mets developed a careful set of experiments to control the contribution of genetics and experience. He removed eggs from their nests shortly after they were laid to ensure chicks never heard their fathers’ song, even in the egg. He then exposed the hatchlings only to carefully controlled computer-generated songs, which he varied in tempo in an attempt to influence the tempo of the song the young birds would learn.

To the researchers’ surprise, they found that these birds largely ignored the tempo of the synthetic songs, and developed adult songs with tempos much closer to their fathers’ songs—which they had never heard. The researchers quantified this observation, showing that 55 percent of variability in the experimental birds’ songs could be explained by differences in their fathers’ songs, but only 21 percent was driven by differences in the synthetic song they heard as chicks.

In a second set of experiments, Mets got rid of the synthetic tutor and instead exposed finch chicks—which also had never heard their fathers’ songs—to unrelated live adult males. The researchers were again surprised to discover a complete reversal of the results seen with synthetic tutoring: the live tutor’s song contributed 53 percent to the tempo of the young birds’ adult songs, with differences in their fathers’ songs contributing only 16 percent.

“This was really exciting because it showed that the experience provided by a live tutor can actually reduce the contribution of genetics to complex behavior like birdsong,” Mets said. “We knew before that live tutors helped birds learn better and faster, but we were surprised to find that this experience can actually override the bird’s genetics.”

“We’ve gotten used to the idea that complex traits and behaviors can have a big genetic component,” Brainard added, citing human studies of identical twins separated at birth who nonetheless share surprising similarities in things like their sense of humor, fashion sense, and so on. “But those stories tend to assume that the genetic component is fixed—academic achievement is either 20 percent genetic or 80 percent genetic. We’re showing here that the contribution of genetics is anything but fixed—in the case of academic achievement, the school you go to may well overcome any contribution of genetics.”

The findings raise the possibility that human genetic studies that fail to account for differences in individuals’ experience could be producing misleading conclusions about the genetic contributions to complex behaviors, Brainard said.

The researchers now hope to use the Bengalese finch as a model to explore how genetics and experience interact in the brain to influence complex behaviors like birdsong. “Where in the brain are the father’s genes and early life experience competing for control over song tempo?” Mets asked. “That’s the next really exciting question.”

The results also suggest a broader opportunity to understand the specific features of enriched early experiences that allows them to override genetic predispositions, Brainard said: “This is far into the future, of course, but it highlights the potential of early behavioral intervention to help mitigate negative genetic traits, such as a predisposition to psychiatric disease.”

Rooftop wiretap aims to learn what crows gossip about at dusk

(University of Washington 5 Dec 2017)

What are crows saying when their loud cawing fills a dark winter’s evening? Despite the inescapable ruckus, nobody knows for sure. Birds congregate daily before and after sleep, and they make some noise, but what might be happening in those brains is a mystery.

Curious about these raucous exchanges, researchers at the University of Washington Bothell are listening in. They are placing equipment on the roof of their building — a meeting place for some of the thousands of crows that sleep in nearby campus trees — and using a sort of computerized eavesdropping to study the relationship between calls and the birds’ behavior.

“With audio alone, our team is able to localize and record the birds remotely, and in dim light that makes this situation less suitable for video tracking,” said Shima Abadi, an assistant professor at UW Bothell’s School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics. “It’s still a challenging task, but we can use the audio signals to look for patterns and learn more about what the birds may be communicating.”

Abadi’s background is in ocean acoustics; some of her previous research tracks whales using underwater microphones in the ocean water. For this project she teamed up with a colleague in biology who studies the local crow population with his undergraduate students.

“They’re incredibly raucous, and make this cacophony every night, and people wonder: What are they saying? And that’s a great question to ask on this campus,” said Douglas Wacker, an assistant professor of biology at UW Bothell.

Wacker earned his UW doctorate studying song sparrows. After joining UW Bothell in 2012, it was only natural that he study the roughly 15,000 crows that migrate to the North Creek Wetlands on campus each evening in fall, winter and spring.

People walking through campus can’t fail to hear the not-always-melodious sound of the birds.

“Crows make a variety of different calls, some of which we understand the functions of fairly well, and others not as well,” Wacker said. “Their normal ‘caw’ calls are not necessarily well understood — we don’t know what information they might be conveying.”

He and Abadi have nearby offices. They decided last year to collaborate on an interdisciplinary project that blends his biology background with her acoustics expertise.

While the field site on the roof of the faculty members’ building is convenient, this project poses technical challenges. These crows call in a noisy environment, where it is tricky to separate their vocalizations from different birds and other surrounding sounds. What’s more, crows are intelligent. They will change their behavior if they think humans are watching, or even if unfamiliar equipment is nearby.

That’s why the high-tech approach, worthy of an avian CSI, is needed.

The team of mostly undergraduate students has been perfecting its audio recording technique. They placed four audio recorders in a 10-foot square in a parking lot, and then placed a speaker playing a crow call in one of the quadrants. The recorders have precise time stamps to calculate when the sound waves arrive, and then software compares the times to pinpoint where the sound was generated.

The students figured out a way to focus on the highest-quality audio to triple the accuracy of the source locations. They can now use the recordings to locate the source of the call to within 6-12 inches, or about the size of a bird.

About 50 to 100 crows might assemble in the pre-roost gathering at dusk on the roof of the science building. Their incessant cawing during flight quietens to just the occasional outburst while on the roof. With Abadi’s help, the team is working to develop a user interface and computer techniques that pick out particular calls, so they do not have to manually pick through hours of cawing but can focus on the most interesting events.

Derek Flett, a senior undergraduate student in mechanical engineering, will describe the team’s efforts Dec. 5 at the Acoustical Society of America’s annual meeting in New Orleans.

This winter they plan to use the equipment in the wild — that is, on the roof — to monitor real groups of crows. Eventually they hope to combine the audio surveillance with video, so they could study how birds might react to particular sounds.

They have also begun to test their theories by playing particular calls and then seeing whether the crows react in the predicted manner.

The idea that the calls contain meaning is plausible, Wacker said. The number of caws, or the length of the pauses between caws, could say something about food sources or possible dangers.

“If a bee can do a dance to tell other bees where food is located, then certainly a highly intelligent bird — in a family with other bird species that are capable of insight learning, recognizing themselves in a mirror, recognizing faces and passing that information on to subsequent generations — could be capable of communicating complex information,” Wacker said.

The other co-author on the work being presented in December is Virdie Guy, an undergraduate in mechanical engineering. The research was funded by a UW Royalty Research Fund.

A warbler’s flashy yellow throat? There are genes for that

warbler2.JPG

(University of British Columbia. 8 Oct 2017; Photo Alan Brelsford)

Birds get their bright red, orange and yellow plumage from carotenoid pigments—responsible for many of the same bright colours in plants. But how songbirds turn carotenoids into the spectacular variety of feathered patches found in nature has remained a mystery.

Now University of British Columbia (UBC) research might have pinpointed some of the genetic machinery responsible for the plumage colouration in Audubon’s and myrtle warblers, related but distinctly feathered North American songbirds.

“Audubon’s and myrtle warblers interbreed in a narrow band across British Columbia and Alberta,” says David Toews, co-author of a new Proceedings of the Royal Society paper exploring the birds’ colouration.

“Those hybrid warblers, while considered oddities to some birders, were key for this study because their plumage traits and genes are all jumbled and mixed, allowing us to link their differing colours to genetic markers and hopefully the genes responsible.”

Both types of warblers use colourful carotenoid pigments to make several yellow feather patches, including their yellow-rumps—the birds are colloquially referred to as ‘butter butts’.

But only Audubon’s also used carotenoids in their telltale yellow throats. Myrtles have white throats and the hybrids have a mix of white and yellow.

The study identified several genomic region s— one including a member of the scavenger receptor gene family that affects carotenoids in other animals—that might be involved in this selective distribution of yellow carotenoid colours.

“We found strong associations with several genomic regions across a handful of distinct plumage traits” explains co-author Alan Brelsford. “Now we can now dig even deeper into these regions to understand the mechanisms that make warblers so colourful and diverse.”

“This study is unusual in that it focused on variation in multiple colour patterning traits,” says co-author Darren Irwin, a professor of zoology at UBC. “Two of the plumage differences between the species, eye spot and eye line colouration, appear to be encoded by a single region in the genome.”