Night parrot’s full genome offers hope for the elusive species

The mysterious night parrot has long perplexed ecologists and birders – from its presumed extinction in the 20th century, to the triumphant discovery of live birds in Queensland and Western Australia during the 2010s.

It’s still one of the world’s most rarely seen birds, with only a handful of photographs and specimens surfacing over the last 20 years.

But now, Australian scientists have another feather in their nocturnal cap: they’ve sequenced and annotated the night parrot’s genome.

This library of genetic information can now be used to learn more about, and conserve, the night parrot.

“We never thought we’d say those three words together in one sentence: night parrot genome,” Dr Leo Joseph, director of the Australian National Wildlife Collection at the CSIRO, tells Cosmos.

“It says a lot about hope for how we can learn more about our biodiversity, including really interesting, quirky species like this.”

The opportunity to sequence the bird’s full genome arose last year, when Traditional Owners in the Pilbara found an injured night parrot caught on a fence.

The bird died from its injuries, so the Traditional Owners delivered it to the West Australian Museum, where the specimen was preserved and put on display last week.

Night parrot specimen from an angle
The night parrot specimen. Credit: © Arianna Urso / Western Australian Museum

Curator Dr Kenny Travouillon gave a small tissue sample from the bird to the CSIRO, so that researchers could run it through ANU’s genetic sequencing technology under their Applied Genomics Initiative.

Dr Gunjan Pandey, a research scientist who led the sequencing project for the CSIRO, tells Cosmos that they were able to sequence the whole genome in 3-4 months, and take another month to annotate it – a fast turnaround.

“We have optimised workflows and pipelines to do high throughput genome assemblies,” says Pandey.

“In the last couple of years, we have done over 100 genomes.”

The researchers finished annotating the genome yesterday, and have released it publicly on the Genbank database.

“The idea here is to make the genome available to everybody so all of us can look at it together, rather than keeping it as our property,” says Pandey.

“The Australian community is paying for a lot of this work, and it’s only fair then that publicly supported science be publicly available,” says Joseph.

But the researchers have their own plans to study the genome too.

“We are going to compare it with genomes from other parrots and nocturnal birds and see what is happening,” says Pandey.

The team is also interested in using the genome to learn about the night parrot’s camouflage, beak morphology, genetic diversity and population structure.

“There are many dimensions to understanding a bird like this. One is to understand its habitat. One is to understand its vocalisations,” says Joseph.

“But if we start to think about genetics, and how genetics can contribute its own dimension to conservation, we can start to think about understanding the longer-term evolutionary history of the night parrot.”

Group of people standing on steps smiling at camera
The team at CSIRO which sequenced the night parrot’s genome.

Joseph likens sequencing a creature’s full genome to making a roadmap.

“If you imagine a roadmap of Australia, with no place names, that’s a bit like just saying we sequenced a genome.

“[…] But annotating the genome means you can put all the place names on the map, you can put all the genes on it.

“So we start to get that genetic blueprint for an organism. We start to have a way of understanding what it is that makes up a night parrot. We can look into genes that we know from other birds are related to nocturnality, and we can understand its biology down to that level.

“And we can use it in conjunction with other pieces of genetic data to understand the genetic structure, of the night parrot today, across its range – which genes might be varying and which genes might not varying.”

Night parrot side on
The night parrot specimen. Credit: © Arianna Urso / Western Australian Museum

The researchers can also now compare the parrot’s DNA to DNA from other night parrot samples, like from feathers – some of which are a century old.

“With DNA from feathers, you don’t get very good quality. But whatever fragmented DNA we get, now, we can use that information to get into the genetic diversity and the population structure,” says Pandey.

Ecologists can also get a better sense of where night parrots have been without observing them in person through environmental DNA, or eDNA.

“A bird watcher colleague of mine once said to me: ‘the night parrot was the only bird in the world that no person living had shown to another person’, which was a really good way to sum up the mystery,” says Joseph.

The researchers are hoping that both they, and other scientists, will use the genetic information to help save the critically endangered species.

“I think another level of interest in the night parrot is what it holds symbolically,” says Joseph.

“It says a lot about environmental change in Australia. It says a lot about how we’ve nearly lost bits of our biodiversity heritage, that we have lost bits.

“And it says a lot about hope.”

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