Population genetics of an endangered bird of prey: the Red Kite (Presentation)

Student: Ilze Skujina
Company: Ecology Matters
Academic Supervisor: Dr Matthew Hegarty & Dr Robert McMahon

Red Kite CREDIT-Mike Hayward Welsh Kite Trust

Red Kite CREDIT-Mike Hayward Welsh Kite Trust

Red Kites (Milvus milvus) are medium sized birds of prey (raptors) which alongside buzzards, ospreys, eagles and hawks have been traditionally considered members of the Accipitridae family. Raptors are highly specialised avian species adapted for a predatory lifestyle, and thus represent a fascinating system for study of bird evolution. They are also important ecologically, serving to manage prey populations which can threaten biodiversity and even human health (through disease) if they become too prevalent.

Economically, assessment of the Red Kite related tourism in Wales for the 1995/6 season estimated that the 148,000 visitors to ‘Kite Country centres’ contributed around £5.4 million to the Mid-Wales economy, supporting around 114 FTE jobs (Rayment 1997). Similarly the re-introduction of Red Kites to Northern England between 2004 and 2008 was estimated to have supported 12.5 FTE jobs and injected a minimum of £1.73 million into the economy of the Lower Derwent Valley during the 4 years of the program (Milton 2009).

The undeserved reputation among humans for killing of livestock, coupled with contraction of their native habitats, has led many raptorial species to become endangered. The original British Red Kite population is a clear example. The Red Kites in Britain were driven to extinction by systematic persecution across the whole of the UK except for a handful of breeding pairs in mid-Wales. Among the main direct genetic consequences of population crashes are the loss of genetic diversity, population structuring, suppression of gene flow and inbreeding (Daniels and Walters, 2000; Groombridge et al., 2000; review in Frankham et al., 2002; Alonso et al., 2003).

The current remarkable recovery of the Welsh Red Kite population through careful nest protection and monitoring is also one of the brightest conservation success stories in the UK. Together with the reintroduction program to other UK habitats, the current genetic status of the Welsh Red Kites poses some intriguing questions.

Genetic diversity in the Red Kites has been previously studied using several mitochondrial and nuclear
DNA markers, however the resources used have been restricted by low level of genetic variability.
The KESS scheme has enabled us not only to carry out the genetic diversity analysis using the
existing markers within the modern Welsh kite population, but it was also possible to apply
next generation sequencing technology to produce a draft nuclear genome sequence (~1.2Gbp)
and complete mitochondrial genome for the Red Kite to accompany the recently published Saker
and Peregrine falcon genomes.

This work will provide a new set of markers and a complete picture of genetic variation in kites and their relation to other raptors. This information is paramount in order to ensure successful conservational management not only of the Red Kites in Wales, but also whole British kite population as Welsh kites are now being used as source for further re-introductions within UK.