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Genetics and the case of hoiho

A recent article in Forest and Bird magazine, written by Jane Young, asks whether genetics can help protect hoiho/yellow eyed penguins. She explores some possible uses of genetic technologies for understanding hoiho populations, the threats they face, and possible further interventions to help survival.

When we are thinking about complex topics like the potential use of genetic technologies for environments, it can help to have specific case studies like this to think about.

Image from Penguin Rescue, a not-for-profit organisation operating from Moeraki, providing safe habitat and hospital care for hoiho.

In the case of hoiho, despite conservation efforts, population numbers of this taonga species have been falling dramatically. This is due to a range of factors – such as disease spread, predators, fishing, and climate change.

According to Young, genetics are already helping researchers to better understand hoiho population dynamics and problems that they face. This includes recognising that the species has a low genetic diversity because of a small number of founding population members on mainland Aotearoa New Zealand. Genetics are also helping with fast identification of a strain of avian diphtheria that is particularly dangerous for chicks, and possibly for development of a vaccine. Further, genetic sequencing could help to identify predators in specific situations. She describes one such scenario, in which genetic sequencing to know whether to target stoats or ferrets could have led to faster trapping and less human intervention in the lives of chicks.

Is further development of these understandings enough, asks Young. Or would gene drives help? Young’s example is the possibility a gene drive that can target the mosquitoes that carry avian malaria, of which 29 hoiho died in the 2018/19 season.

Ultimately, as Young says, “as hoiho stare down the barrel of extinction, genomics can give us tools to use in their conservation management. What technology can’t do is provide miracle solutions. It can’t weigh up the moral and ethical factors that must be involved in decision-making.”

That is up to us.

What do you think? Please comment below.

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