On the wing

Through a long-standing partnership between ECU and Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, researchers have sequenced the genome of the white-winged wood duck, which could help in the conservation effort for the rare avian species.

There are only 150-250 of the birds in captive populations, and probably less than 800 in the wild, said Dustin Foote ’16, general curator of the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Foote has a master’s degree in biology from ECU and is working on a doctorate.

The white-winged wood duck is one of the rarest at the park. Sylvan Heights owns all the white-winged wood ducks in captivity in North America and has birds on loan to 14 other institutions, he said. The species is native to southeast Asia and is notoriously difficult to survey due to its mottled black-and-white coloring and its preferred habitat.

“They really like these flooded forest environments, and they just disappear when people are trying to do surveys, and so they’re kind of hard to get a good gauge on … but that’s a tiny number of them,” he said. “In a bad year, they could just be gone.”

Foote’s research on the birds’ genome is aimed at better understanding health issues that affect them, such as avian tuberculosis.

“It really decreases their lifespan… and that’s affecting the long term sustainability of the captive in population, which is going to be a critical component to the future of this species,” Foote said.

Birds from the wild have also been sequenced, and there’s an environmental monitoring component to explore external factors. Because of the small global population, the species has limited genetic diversity, which could play a role, and the team is looking at how the birds are being raised and housed and how they might be exposed to the disease.

The genomic sequencing is also part of a larger project involving researchers all over the world and recently published in Nature.

“It’s a massive jump in the scale at which we sequence things, and we sequence them to understand where birds came from and what makes birds different from each other, how birds behave, and how to better conserve the bird species that we have,” said Chris Balakrishnan, associate professor in the Department of Biology. His lab has contributed six sequenced genomes, including Foote’s work on the white-winged wood duck, to the more than 250 genomes analyzed in the project.