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STUDY: Why ‘Alalā Eggs Fail to Hatch

December 5, 2018, 8:34 AM HST
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Jolene Sutton. Courtesy photo.

Conservation geneticist Jolene Sutton at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo received a grant that will help discover why eggs have failed to hatch for two iconic endangered bird species—the ʻalalā (Hawaiian crow) and the kākāpō of New Zealand.

Sutton, along with her colleagues at the University of Otago in New Zealand, the University of Sydney in Australia and San Diego Zoo Global, were awarded the three-year grant for $630,000 from the Marsden Fund for their research utilizing genome sequencing data.

“In addition to sequencing every living individual and some of the birds that are no longer alive today, we’re going to sequence embryos as well,” said Sutton. “Genetic material has been saved from eggs that didn’t hatch, and we’re interested in establishing whole genome resources for those. By comparing genomes of eggs that didn’t hatch to genomes of individuals that did successfully hatch, we hope to identify genes associated with hatching failure.”

The ʻalalā or Hawaiian crow. PC: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia

In addition to positive ecological and cultural impacts, the research in recovering the two bird species will also have an educational benefit both at UH Hilo and the University of Otago.

“A lot of our research is being done with students,” said Sutton. “With the Marsden Funds, we’ll continue to involve graduate as well as undergraduate students in this research–there’s going to be a lot of data generated, so we’re going to involve a lot of students in that research. Students and staff will get hands-on experience doing cutting-edge research with the latest bioinformatics tools, the latest genomics tools, and two species that are very iconic worldwide.”

The kākāpō of New Zealand. PC: Department of Conservation via Wikimedia

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In discovering why eggs fail to hatch, conservation scientists will be able to overcome one of the most challenging barriers in conserving the species.

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“Their hatching failure is about 60% in ʻalalā and about 50% in kākāpō, and if you compare that to most wild species, hatching failure is only around 10% to 20%,” said Sutton. “This inability to make it from an egg to a chick is one of the biggest barriers to their recovery, at least from a genetic basis.”

For more, read the full story written by Alyssa Mathews, a freshman at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo. at UH Hilo Stories.

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