Genetic study answers key questions about the pink cockatoo – The Science Show
Robyn Williams: It’s been a while since we last talked about parrots, sorry about that. And, as you will hear, I’m quite obsessed with our colorful and intelligent birds. The theme this time is pink, and on our first visit to a museum, we’re going to see Kyle Ewart who has news about cockatoos.
Kyle, as you can see on my card, my business card, there are three galahs. I would call them pink cockatoos. How are they different from yours?
Kyle Ewart: Well, they are not too different in appearance. The pink cockatoo is a bit paler in its plumage, but what’s amazing about the pink cockatoo is its crest, it has a very bright yellow, red, white crest, and it lives in slightly different regions. But the pink cockatoo and the galah sometimes meet. In the wild, they have sometimes even hybridized, and sometimes you will find a galah in a pink cockatoo nest. But from an evolutionary point of view, they are very different.
Robyn Williams: When they merge their genomes, what do the offspring look like?
Kyle Ewart: It looks exactly what you think; halfway between a galah and a pink cockatoo. I forget what they call them, I think they call them Major galah because another name for a pink cockatoo is Major Mitchell’s cockatoo. But they vary, sometimes they have more characteristics of the pink cockatoo, sometimes they look more like a galah. But it’s quite amazing that it can happen in nature, not often but it has happened in nature.
Robyn Williams: The name Major Mitchell is quite famous.
Kyle Ewart: Yes, so he was one of the first to write about these birds. He had a pretty famous quote about these birds, about their beauty, and a lot of things are actually named after Major Mitchell. People tend to use the ‘pink cockatoo’ more recently because Major Mitchell got into some conflicts, some of the horrible things he did as well.
Robyn Williams: Not another!
Kyle Ewart: So I usually call them pink cockatoo. They are also known as the Leadbeater’s Cockatoo because their scientific name is Lophochroa leadbeateri. They are sometimes known as the desert cockatoo.
Robyn Williams: And when you say desert, where do they live?
Kyle Ewart: This is another amazing thing about them, they live in the arid or semi-arid interior of Australia so they live in some of the harshest environments in Australia and yet they survive there. And a lot of parrots and cockatoos escape in drought, but these guys resist it. They obviously need a source of water, but they are able to live a fairly varied diet, so they can feed on a number of different seeds and fruits and even weeds and crops, and they will also eat larvae. But yes, they are very beautiful and you will find them in some of the most beautiful desert landscapes in Australia.
Robyn Williams: Are you more of an ecologist or geneticist or what?
Kyle Ewart: I’m a geneticist but we apply genetics to answer a lot of ecological questions and how they evolved, how these birds exist in Australia and how our landscapes or Australia’s biogeography affect the movements of these types.
Robyn Williams: And you’ve actually deciphered the genome now, is that the news?
Kyle Ewart: Yes, so we don’t have a complete genome for these birds, but we have generated thousands of markers in almost 100 birds spread across Australia. This is therefore essentially the first comprehensive genetic study on this species. We were able to answer questions that had dragged on for over a century. What we know about these birds was based on their appearance. So, for the past two decades, it’s believed that there are two subspecies, and that was just based on their morphology or what they looked like. Thus, a subspecies in central and western Australia called Lophochroa leadbeateri mollis. And then there is a second subspecies located in eastern inner Australia, and the only difference between them is their body size, and the ones in the east are slightly larger, and the width red in their crest. So, like I said, their crests were white, yellow, and orange-red, and their crest red is a bit wider than the eastern ones. So there are some very subtle differences, but for the first time we got to see what these differences look like genetically, and if there was any other cryptic diversity. So sometimes things are very, very different genetically, but they look the same.
Robyn Williams: Of course, if you are a birdo and want to score 600 join the 600 club, you got three hits instead of just one now because you sliced ââthe salami even more.
Kyle Ewart: Yes, we wanted to see if there were different subspecies, but more importantly, we wanted to find if there was cryptic diversity, therefore isolated populations in Australia, and that was really the point of the study because if there were isolated populations, we wanted to first identify if there were, and then if there were low diversity populations as well, because genetically diverse isolated populations are a huge problem. There may be issues with inbreeding and they might not have the ability to evolve in a changing environment. And our environment is changing right now, especially in Australia. It’s climate change, we’re constantly changing the landscape. So we wanted to make sure that if there were isolated populations with low diversity, maybe we could do something.
Robyn Williams: And your surroundings in the Australian Museum have also changed, and the most beautiful different rooms and restaurants have just opened, fabulous here, isn’t it.
Kyle Ewart: It’s amazing, yeah, I like it here, and I also like being on the research side. The collections of the Australian Museum are amazing, and all of the samples in this study come from museums across Australia, including the Australian Museum. So museums keep these taxidermy birds, so basically stuffed birds that were killed on the road or on expeditions in the past, and we were able to use them for genetic studies.
So we can cut a thin layer of toe pad from these birds because toe pads are not considered a very important feature when morphologists want to study birds and then take DNA from those toe pads. . So yes the museum collections, Australian Museum and other museums like the Western Australian Museum, the Museum of Victoria, and the Australian National Wildlife Collection, they provided all the samples for that, I didn’t get at all to go out into the field.
Robyn Williams: You mean pads on the foot?
Kyle Ewart: Yeah, so if you can imagine a bird’s foot it’s like our fingerprint. Just a thin slice of that …
Kyle Ewart: And can you get genes out of it?
Kyle Ewart: Yes. In fact, some of them were over 100 years old. And chop that little slice of toe pad and smash the cell walls and extract DNA, then generate thousands and thousands of genetic markers, and we use it for all of our research in conservation genetics and genetics. populations. It’s quite astonishing, the things that we can extract DNA from nowadays. Museum specimens are becoming more and more accessible as DNA technologies improve.
Robyn Williams: My last question, one you’ve been asked before, but do we have more parrots in Australia than anywhere else in the world?
Kyle Ewart: I don’t know, off the top of my head. I think we have the most amazing parrots. We have the most species of cockatoos. There are 21 species of cockatoos, and I think Australia has 14. South America has some pretty amazing parrots, the macaws, but nothing beats Australian cockatoos to me, especially the pink cockatoo. So if we don’t have the most parrots, we probably have, we have the best parrots.
Robyn Williams: Dr Kyle Ewart of the University of Sydney is an Associate Researcher at the Australian Museum. And I forgot to ask him if he has any birds that bear his name. Probably a little too young.