Institute unveils draft spoonbill genome

THREATENED BIRD::An Endemic Species Research Institute researcher said that ‘runs of homozygosity’ showed inbreeding, but the DNA was similar to the royal spoonbill

By Lin Chia-nan  /  Staff reporter

Fri, Mar 08, 2019 - Page 2

The Endemic Species Research Institute yesterday unveiled the world’s first draft genome sequence of black-faced spoonbills, calling for efforts to protect its habitats in Taiwan.

About two-thirds of the world’s black-faced spoonbills, or Platalea minor, winter in Taiwan from October to April, so the birds would soon leave these shores to head north, institute director Yang Jia-dong (楊嘉棟) said.

The species’ number fell drastically, from nearly 60,000 at the end of the last ice age about 18,000 years ago to fewer than 300 in the 1980s, but conservation efforts have brought their numbers up to nearly 4,000, institute associate researcher Yao Cheng-te (姚正得) said.

The fall in number of the birds, which live in coastal areas across Northeast Asia, might have been a result of wars and use of the insecticide DDT, Yao said.

The institute spent nearly three years studying blood samples from the birds and has completed a draft of their genome, he said.

Yao said he worked with a team led by National Taiwan Normal University professor of life sciences Li Shou-hsien (李壽先) on the research, which has not been published.

Inbreeding among the birds was common when their numbers were fewer and there were fewer potential mates, as shown by the “runs of homozygosity” in the genes, he said.

Although genetic diversity is an indicator of adaptability, there is no significant difference between the genetic diversity of the birds and that of their sister species, the royal spoonbill, or Platalea regia, Yao said.

More effort is needed to maintain conservation areas for black-faced spoonbills in Tainan’s Cigu District (七股), where mangrove growth has restricted suitable habitats, he said.

They can be found in coastal areas of southwestern Taiwan, he said, adding that local governments in the region should consider reserving space to protect them.

The birds need each other to help clean their heads and necks, as their long bills are a hindrance in doing so themselves, Yao said, adding that areas with clean water, sufficient food sources and fewer external disturbances are conducive to their survival.