Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A message from the past

C. carolinensis by John James Audubon
Once it was the only parrot species native to the eastern United States. It was found from southern New York and Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, and lived in old forests along rivers. But then its habitat was taken away in favor of more agricultural land. The bird's colorful feathers were also in demand as decorations in ladies' hats. Many were killed because farmers considered them a pest. The end was inevitable - the last bird of the species died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1918.

The Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) went extinct before we knew much about its ecology and behavior, let alone anything about the evolutionary relationships between this and other neotropical parrot species. 

Aratinga solstitialis
94 years later a group of researchers from the New State Museum and the New Mexico State University opened a door into the past. They were able to extract DNA from slivers of skin and connective tissue from the toes of some museum specimens. Two mitochondrial DNA fragments were sequenced, ND2 and COI mainly to gain insight into the evolutionary relationships of this group of parrots. The authors could for example show that the Carolina parakeet is a sister species of the Sun Parakeet (Aratinga solstitialis) and not as previously hypothesized of the monk parakeet, Myiopsitta monachus which seems more like a distant cousin.

The COI sequences retrieved for this study may be useful as references against which controversial remains of putative Carolina Parakeets can be evaluated. Of particular interest to historians are two egg sets in the collection of the Florida Museum of Natural History that were collected several years after the last uncontroversial sightings.

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