New research could help improve bird conservation methods

Scientists at the University of Sheffield have developed a new method of testing the fertility of critically endangered birds which could make captive breeding programmes more effective and help secure the future of several species.

An unhatched egg being opened

Using newly developed methods which allow experts to tell the difference between infertility and very early embryo death – something that has never been done before in endangered species – new light has been shed on methods for breeding critically endangered bird species in captivity.

Researchers from the University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences believe their new method of assessing egg fertility, ensuring pairs are sexually compatible and the males are producing enough sperm, could save bird species on the brink of extinction.

A helmeted honeyeaterAcademics analysed the reproduction of five critically endangered species of birds in the wild and in breeding programmes and found the wilds birds suffered exceptionally high rates of embryo death because of inbreeding, while in the captive birds little, if any, sperm even managed to fertilise the eggs.

Dr Nicola Hemmings, who led the research, said: “Our findings suggest that breeding birds in captivity may impact on fertility. The captive birds we studied had high levels of infertility and far fewer sperm managed to reach the eggs than would be expected for birds of their size.

“This may be for a number of reasons; for example, the birds may not mate properly in captivity or males may not produce sufficient sperm due to the stress of a captive environment.”

The researchers believe their findings, published in the journal Biology Letters, will have important implications for the conservation of endangered birds across the world, particularly those species where most of the remaining birds are kept in zoos and sanctuaries.

Dr Hemmings added: “Although breeding in captivity may not necessarily be the best option, it is sometimes the only option for critically endangered species like the ones we worked with. I'd advocate using techniques like we did to assess fertility of birds, so you know which birds are likely to be successful.

“Once fertile birds are identified, it may be best to allow these birds to engage in natural courtship, mate choice and breeding behaviour with minimal human intervention - this would probably minimise stress and may also reduce the chance of incompatibility between partners.

“Normal social and sexual behaviour may be a really important ingredient for successful reproduction. However, some human intervention may be necessary, for example if female birds are not incubating their eggs properly then it may be necessary to incubate those eggs artificially to avoid losing the developing embryos.”

The team found that more than 100 eggs examined from birds bred in captivity – including the Spix's macaw, which is now extinct in the wild, and the orange-bellied parrot – had not been fertilised because few, if any, sperm had managed to get to the egg. In the wild, most endangered bird eggs failed due to embryo death, which is probably caused by inbreeding in their small, isolated populations.

Scientists from the University analysed five species of birds: the helmeted honeyeater; hihi; the orange-bellied parrot; Spix’s macaw; and the yellow shouldered Amazon parrot.

Additional information

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The University of Sheffield

With nearly 25,000 students from 125 countries, the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading and largest universities. A member of the Russell Group, it has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, and 2007).

These prestigious awards recognise outstanding contributions by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield also boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and many of its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence around the world. The University’s research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls Royce, Unilever, Boots, AstraZeneca, GSK, ICI, Slazenger, and many more household names, as well as UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

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Paul Mannion
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The University of Sheffield
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