Genetics study sheds light on Chile’s most endangered bird

When assessing the status of an endangered species, conservationists often take into account environmental factors, such as threats to habitat, and behavioral patterns of breeding and feeding.

15 Estudio genético arroja luz sobre el ave más amenazada de ChileIncreasingly, scientists also turn to genetic analysis to better understand threatened biodiversity.

A recent study by Javier Gonzalez published in’s open-access journal, Tropical Conservation Science , explores the phylogenetic significance of the Masafuera Rayadito (Aphrastura masafuerae), Chile’s most endangered bird.

A member of the Furnariidae family, the small brown and beige bird possesses rusty “spine-like” tail feathers and inhabits densely vegetated areas.

In 2012 the IUCN declared the Masafuera Rayadito to be a Critically Endangered species. With a distribution limited to a single island—Alejandro Selkirk—in the Juan Fernandez Archipelago off of Chile’s Pacific coast, the species is particularly vulnerable to extinction.

While closely related taxa, including sister species, Thorn-tailed Rayadito (Aphrastura spinicauda), have previously undergone genetic study, Gonzalez conducts the first such investigation into the divergence of the Masafuera Rayadito from its mainland relatives.

The author extracted mitochondrial DNA from blood samples of two Masafuera Rayaditos and analyzed their nucleotide sequences.

The results of this study confirm that the Masafuera Rayadito and the thorn-tailed Rayadito are close relatives and estimate that the species diverged between 0.38 and 0.76 million years ago.

These estimates are consistent with the geological age and origin of the Juan Fernandez Archipelago. “The level of genetic divergence between Aphrastura masafuerae and A. spinicuada supports a recent colonization of the Juan Fernandez Archipelago by the Masafuera Rayadito in the South Pacific Ocean, approximately 0.65 [million years] ago,” states Gonzalez in the study.

Due to its biogeographically remote location, Alejandro Selkirk Island harbors a notably high level of avian endemism—species found nowhere else in the world.

In the case of the Masafuera Rayadito, uncertainty lingers about original colonization of the island. Gonzalez explains, “… [I]t remains unclear whether this avian species arrived at Alejandro Selkirk by a direct colonization from the mainland or from neighboring islands…”

According to Gonzalez’s study, the Masafuera Rayadito should remain a top conservation priority, as it represents a “taxonomically distinct” species and contributes critical phylogenetic diversity.

Despite presumed population increases in the past decade, habitat loss by way of conversion to livestock grazing lands continues to threaten the existence of the Masafuera Rayadito. Increasing predator populations, natural—Masafuera Hawk—and invasive—feral cats and rats, also exert pressure on the Masafuera Rayadito.

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