RIP Richard Henry

January 14, 2011

From Codfish Island this morning comes the sad news of the death of Richard Henry, the last remaining Fiordland kakapo.  Richard Henry was captured in Fiordland in 1975, at a time when kakapo were thought to be virtually extinct.  All other kakapo currently living are descended from birds discovered on Stewart Island in 1977.  A 2003 study* showed that kakapo have low genetic variation, with the exception of Richard Henry who was genetically distinct from all the Stewart Island birds.  Richard Henry had thus become an important player in the kakapo recovery program as the recovery team attempted to boost the genetic diversity of the species. 

This DNA fingerprint of kakapo clearly shows how distinct Richard Henry was. His fingerprint is marked with an asterisk - all the others are from Stewart Is. birds

More from

One of the key players in the Kakapo Recovery Programme was found dead on Codfish Island yesterday, marking the end of an era.

Kakapo Richard Henry was discovered by one of the recovery team members after what was believed to be an 80-year life.

Richard Henry, who was named after a Victorian conservationist who pioneered kakapo recovery, was originally found as an adult in Fiordland in 1975 when his species was believed to be extinct.

Since that time he has contributed to the genetic diversity of kakapo in the recovery programme and is well known for his efforts.

Department of Conservation programme scientist Ron Moorhouse said Richard Henry would be sorely missed by everyone who knew him.

“Richard Henry was a living link to the early days of kakapo recovery and perhaps even to a time before stoats when kakapo could boom unmolested in Fiordland,” he said.

Richard Henry was showing signs of ageing for some time before he was found, including blindness in one eye, slow movement and wrinkles, he said.

Meanwhile, the kakapo breeding season is under way on Codfish and Anchor islands and the first eggs are expected to appear next month.

*Disclaimer: I was part of that study, and the fingerprint gel is one of my more arty pieces of molecular biology, so I thought I’d post it in tribute.

The reference is: Miller HC, Lambert DM, Millar CD, Robertson BC, Minot EO (2003) Minisatellite DNA profiling detects lineages and parentage in the endangered kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) despite low microsatellite DNA variation. Conservation Genetics, 4: 265-274.



Don’t forget to vote!

October 10, 2010

No, not for your local government (you’re too late for that).  For New Zealand’s Bird of the Year, of course! Apparently the pukeko is out in front. Come on people, can’t we at least chose something endemic? A species that we don’t share with Australia and numerous other countries??  There’s plenty to chose from – the kakariki is giving the pukeko a run for its money (only 2 votes in it at 10am this morning!), and the old favorites kiwi, kakapo and weka might get up with a late run of voting.  You can vote here.

A falcon’s eye view of flight

September 27, 2010

This video has been doing the rounds, and its so cool I just have to post it here.  The video shows the amazing maneuverability and speed of birds of prey in flight, thanks to “on bird” cameras mounted on a peregrine falcon and a goshawk.

hat-tip: Ars technica

Beating the creationists at their own game?

July 21, 2010 The presence of “gaps” in the fossil record is one of the main arguments creationists use against evolution. The transition from Coelurosaurian dinosaurs to birds is one such purported gap that creationists like to harp on about.  Evolutionary biologists would argue that Archeopteryx fills this gap quite nicely, but this is disputed by creationists, who argue that Archaeopteryx is a true bird and not a transitional form.

A recent study by Phil Senter of Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, published in Journal of Evolutionary Biology, takes another look at the evolution of Coelurosauria but with a twist.  Senter takes on the creationists on their own terms, using a statistical method developed by creationists to visualise morphological gaps in the fossil record, to show that actually, there aren’t any morphological gaps in the fossil record between basal birds (including Archeopteryx) and a range of non-avian dinosaurs.  These findings will come as no great surprise to evolutionary biologists who have long accepted that birds evolved from dinosaurs and that Archaeopteryx has both bird-like and dinosaur-like features.   However, Senter’s rational for doing this study was that if you can demonstrate evolutionary relatedness between species under creationist’s criteria, then they will be obliged to accept the results.

Read the rest of this entry »

So now you know…

July 15, 2010

This from

British scientists believe they have cracked the answer to the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Researchers have found that a protein called ovocleidin (OC-17) is crucial in the formulation of eggshells, and it is produced in the pregnant hen’s ovaries, the Daily Express reports.

Therefore, the answer to the conundrum must be that the chicken came first.

Using a high-tech computer to look at the molecular structure of a shell, the team of scientists from the Universities of Sheffield and Warwick found that OC-17 acts as a catalyst, kick-starting the conversion of calcium carbonate in the chicken’s body into calcite crystals.

They make up the hard shell that houses the yolk and its protective fluids while the chick develops.

“It had long been suspected that the egg came first but now we have the scientific proof that shows that in fact the chicken came first,” said Dr Colin Freeman, from Sheffield University.

“The protein had been identified before and it was linked to egg formation but by examining it closely we have been able to see how it controls the process.”

But the researchers have not yet got an answer to how the protein-producing chicken existed in the first place.

I may have more to say about this later…  I don’t quite see how this is “proof” that the chicken came first.

Update:  Here’s PZ Myer’s take on this.  In a nutshell:

You simply can’t make the conclusion the reporter was making here. The species ancestral to Gallus gallus laid eggs, the last common ancestor of all birds laid eggs, the reptiles that preceded the birds laid eggs…the appearance of egg laying was not coincident with the evolution of ovocleidin. The first chicken that acquired the protein we call ovocleidin now by mutation of a prior protein also hatched from an egg.

What are the limits of non-stop flight?

May 14, 2010

In 2007, an Alaskan bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica baueri) flew 11,000 kms over 8 days from Siberia to New Zealand.  Nonstop.  Thats without feeding, sitting down on the ocean to rest, or calling in for a break at a tropical island on the way.  In Plos Biology this week, Anders Hedenström looks at the physiological and aerodynamic requirements for such feats of endurance, and finds that current models can explain such feats.

Hedenstrom compared the rate of fuel consumption in godwits with that of other birds, and found that godwit’s fuel consumption is very efficient, but lies within a normal range.  The godwits body shape and flight speed also mean it is close to the “optimal design” for long-distance flight from an aerodynamic standpoint.  However, many shorebirds share these features and once again the godwit doesn’t stand out as being exceptional.  Hedenstrom suggests that the godwit may stand out from other birds in its ability to navigate, but exactly how the birds maintain their orientation during their non-stop flight across the ocean remains a mystery.

Satellite tracks of the Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica. Image created by USGS Alaskan Science Center.

Reference: Hedenström A (2010) Extreme Endurance Migration: What Is the Limit to Non-Stop Flight? PLoS Biol 8(5): e1000362. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000362

Songbird genome published

April 1, 2010

The genome of the zebra finch was published in Nature today and is free to access here. This is the second bird species to have its genome published – the other one being the chicken.  The zebra finch is a member of the Order Passeriformes (the songbirds) and is something of a model organism in neurophysiology.  Not surprisingly its genome has a number of interesting features associated with song and vocal communication.  I hope to have some time to write more about the songbird genome later but in the meantime here’s a summary from Nature:

The genome of the zebra finch — a songbird and a model for the study of vertebrate brain, behaviour and evolution — has been sequenced. Its comparison with the chicken genome, the only other bird genome available, shows that genes with neural function and implicated in cognitive processing of song have been rapidly evolving in the finch lineage. The study also shows that vocal communication engages much of the zebra finch brain transcriptome and identifies a potential integrator of microRNA signals linked to vocal communication.

Male zebra finch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)