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Why do inbred males fire blanks?

Dr Helen Taylor in her mobile lab

Posted: Thu, 3 Nov 2016

Two important outcomes of inbreeding are reduced fertility and the reduced health of offspring. It follows that inbreeding would be particularly detrimental to threatened species, of which New Zealand has many – especially birds.

Dr Helen Taylor from the University of Otago’s Anatomy Department has received a Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant for a world-first study of male inbreeding infertility in wild birds.

Infertility in birds has been studied before, but captive and laboratory populations of a single species were used. Dr Taylor has selected four bird species – blackbirds, South Island robins, dunnocks and hihi/stitchbirds – for genetic assessment.

Dr Taylor’s study aims to identify general trends across species as well as trends within species, for example, comparisons between the sperm of inbred versus outbred birds.

The team will conduct computer-assisted sperm analysis and DNA fragmentation assessment to clarify the relationship between inbreeding and sperm quality. They aim to identify genes that might be responsible for infertility in inbred males.

Results will aid in the management of threatened species, improve captive breeding programs and be of interest worldwide to people working on biodiversity. This research also has the potential to inform agricultural practice.

Helen Taylor with hihi stitchbird On Tiritiri Matangi Image credit Mhairi McCready Custom

Dr Taylor with a hihi (stichbird) on Tiritiri Matangi. Photo Mhairi McCready

Total Funding: $300,000 (excl. GST) for 3 years

Researchers: Dr Helen Taylor, Department of Anatomy, University of Otago, PO Box 913, Dunedin 9054

Dr Taylor has also talked about her work as an entry for the 180 seconds of science competition. The video is below.