Nav: Home

Greater prairie chickens cannot persist in Illinois without help, researchers report

February 27, 2017

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- An iconic bird whose booming mating calls once reverberated across "the Prairie State" can survive in Illinois with the help of periodic human interventions, researchers report.

The greater prairie chicken once dominated the American Midwest, but today the bird is in trouble in many parts of its historic range. It is no longer found in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas or Wyoming, states where it once flourished. And in Illinois, an estimated 186 birds remain in two adjoining counties in the southern part of the state.

"They used to be all over the state," said Illinois Natural History Survey conservation biologist Mark Davis, who participated in a genetic analysis of the Illinois birds. "This was the tallgrass prairie state. You couldn't throw a rock into a field without hitting a prairie chicken."

The reason for the decline is simple, Davis said.

"We changed our land-use practices from having a lot of prairie, then to wheat, hay and alfalfa, and now to vast expanses of corn and soybeans," he said. "Prairie chickens used to have 20 million acres of prairie in Illinois. Now, they have around 2,000. At the same time, population size went from 10 to 14 million in the 1860s to the 100 to 200 or so we have today. There just isn't enough habitat."

Environmental officials have made two efforts to rescue Illinois' dwindling prairie chicken populations, which are suffering from a lack of habitat and declining genetic diversity. Between 1992 and 1998, teams imported more than 200 prairie chickens from other states.

"In Illinois, the first translocation brought in birds from all over the upper Midwest - from North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska," Davis said. "And for a short period of time, it seemed to work." More chicks survived to reproductive age and genetic diversity spiked, he said.

To understand how well the birds were doing long after that first translocation, Davis and his colleagues analyzed the DNA from feathers collected in the birds' courtship grounds from 2010-13. The researchers report their findings in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

"What our paper reveals is that about 20 years after the translocation of new prairie chickens into Illinois, we see another decrease in genetic diversity and a decline in the number of birds," Davis said.

The study confirmed that the only two remaining populations of prairie chickens in Illinois -- one in Marion County and the other in Jasper County -- are genetically isolated from one another, Davis said. The birds have access to a few hundred acres of territory overall, but the land is subdivided by roads and power lines, which represent additional barriers.

"They're also surrounded by an agricultural desert of corn and soybeans," Davis said.

The study identified 88 unique males using the courtship grounds, where the birds strut and boom to attract females. The team estimates that roughly the same number of females live in Illinois.

The researchers' conclusion: A lack of habitat endangers prairie chickens' long-term survival in Illinois. Without periodic human intervention - in the form of translocations of birds from other states - the population could die out.

"This is the issue that sage grouse are facing out West," Davis said. "This is the issue that lesser prairie chickens are facing in Texas and Oklahoma. These are big birds that need a big landscape that we don't have anymore."

There are still strongholds for prairie chickens in Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota, Davis said. In western Minnesota, for example, a tradition of protection for game animals and a hefty excise tax on hunting and fishing licenses has allowed the state to purchase lands and protect a patchwork of interconnected grassland habitat, he said.

"Now you have this swath of restored prairie and the birds are doing really well -- so much so that a few years ago, on a very limited basis, Minnesota was able to have the first prairie chickens taken by hunting in many years," he said.

But Illinois has strong agricultural traditions, and Davis doesn't foresee a similar effort in the state.

"Providing food for the world does come at a cost, and that cost is habitat for wildlife," he said.

"To sustain prairie chickens in Illinois, we have two options," Davis said. "We can purchase and restore as much prairie habitat as possible. In lieu of that, we need to support the periodic translocations of new birds to Illinois to preserve this prairie icon."
-end-
The INHS is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the U. of I.

Editor's notes:

To reach Mark Davis, call 217-333-6294; email davis63@illinois.edu. The paper "Genetic rescue, the greater prairie chicken, and the problem of conservation-reliance in the Anthropocene" is available online and from the U. of I. News Bureau.DOI: 10.1098/rsos.160736

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Related Genetic Diversity Articles:

Rare genetic disorders: New approach uses RNA in search for genetic triggers
In about half of all patients with rare hereditary disorders, it is still unclear what position of the genome is responsible for their condition.
Major genetic study identifies 12 new genetic variants for ovarian cancer
A genetic trawl through the DNA of almost 100,000 people, including 17,000 patients with the most common type of ovarian cancer, has identified 12 new genetic variants that increase risk of developing the disease and confirmed the association of 18 of the previously published variants.
Use of fetal genetic sequencing increases the detection rate of genetic findings
In a study to be presented Thursday, Jan. 26, in the oral plenary session at 8 a.m.
Diversity without limits
Now, researchers at Temple and Oakland universities have completed a new tree of prokaryotic life calibrated to time, assembled from 11,784 species of bacteria.
Threatened by diversity
Psychologist Brenda Major identifies what may be a key factor in many white Americans' support for Donald Trump.
Genetic diversity crucial to Florida scrub-jay's survival
Legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold once advised: 'To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.' For the endangered Florida scrub-jay, new research shows that saving every last grouping among its small and scattered remnant populations is vital to preserving genetic diversity -- and the long-term survival of the species.
Genetic diversity of enzymes alters metabolic individuality
Scientists from Tohoku University's Tohoku Medical Megabank Organization have published research about genetic diversity and metabolome in Scientific Reports.
Expanded prenatal genetic testing may increase detection of carrier status for potentially serious genetic conditions
In an analysis that included nearly 350,000 adults of diverse racial and ethnic background, expanded carrier screening for up to 94 severe or profound conditions may increase the detection of carrier status for a variety of potentially serious genetic conditions compared with current recommendations from professional societies, according to a study appearing in the Aug.
Fix for 3-billion-year-old genetic error could dramatically improve genetic sequencing
Researchers found a fix for a 3-billion-year-old glitch in one of the major carriers of information needed for life, RNA, which until now produced errors when making copies of genetic information.
Genetic diversity important for plant survival when nitrogen inputs increase
Genetic diversity is important for plant species to persist in Northern forests that experience human nitrogen inputs.

Related Genetic Diversity Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Anthropomorphic
Do animals grieve? Do they have language or consciousness? For a long time, scientists resisted the urge to look for human qualities in animals. This hour, TED speakers explore how that is changing. Guests include biological anthropologist Barbara King, dolphin researcher Denise Herzing, primatologist Frans de Waal, and ecologist Carl Safina.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#SB2 2019 Science Birthday Minisode: Mary Golda Ross
Our second annual Science Birthday is here, and this year we celebrate the wonderful Mary Golda Ross, born 9 August 1908. She died in 2008 at age 99, but left a lasting mark on the science of rocketry and space exploration as an early woman in engineering, and one of the first Native Americans in engineering. Join Rachelle and Bethany for this very special birthday minisode celebrating Mary and her achievements. Thanks to our Patreons who make this show possible! Read more about Mary G. Ross: Interview with Mary Ross on Lash Publications International, by Laurel Sheppard Meet Mary Golda...