DNA Detective Work Helps In Fight To Save Endangered Seabird

March 28, 1997

A team of researchers at Simon Fraser University has successfully used a new molecular DNA technique to learn more about an endangered seabird.

The results will make studying the elusive bird a lot easier and may ultimately affect logging practices all along the Pacific coast.

The bird is the marbled murrelet, a small brownish-black Pacific seabird listed as endangered thoughout most of its range, including British Columbia, due to loss of old-growth forest. Because it nests high in trees--often as far as 50 km inland--and feeds its young at night, the marbled murrelet is very difficult to study by conventional methods. To make matters worse, researchers have lacked one vital study tool--a way to tell male and female marbled murrelets apart.

Until now.

A research team led by SFU biologist Tony Williams has adapted a new avian DNA 'marker' technique to accurately determine the sex of marbled murrelets from blood samples collected in the field.

This is the first time the new technique has been applied to a conservation issue, anywhere, says Williams. "As far as I know, we're the only lab in Canada, possibly North America, that has this technique up and running," he says. U.S. researchers are already lining up to send their murrelet blood samples north for analysis.

The DNA work has raised new questions about the marbled murrelet. Results to date show that males appear to outnumber females by a ratio of almost two to one. At best, it's a sampling blip. At worst, it's bad news for murrelets --and loggers.

"It's possible that what we're actually seeing here is a population that has been in serious decline for some time," says Williams. "We need to find out, because in order to convince the forestry people not to go into a certain area, they need facts they can have confidence in."

A longer news release on this topic is available on the Web at: http://www.sfu.ca/mediapr, by e-mail (shore@sfu.ca), or from the Media/PR office.

CONTACT: Tony Williams, biosciences, 291-4982, or Valerie Shore, Media/PR, 291-3219.

Simon Fraser University

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