Thursday, February 18, 2016

DNA Barcoding to fight song bird slaughter

I don't know if you ever heard of Ambelopoulia, which is a traditional dish of grilled, pickled or boiled songbirds served on Cyprus. I find the idea of such a dish disgusting to begin with but what is really concerning is that the birds are caught by using non-selective methods such as mist nets and limesticks during the migration period in autumn but also in the spring. Trappers mainly target blackcaps but also other birds such as bee-eaters and shrikes. In contrast the list of trapped bird species is over 150 species long and includes 78 species listed as threatened by BirdLife International and the EU Birds Directive. According to Birdlife Cyprus over 1.5 million migrating songbirds are killed annually, and the number is increasing each year.

To be clear, this practice is outlawed by the EU and national legislation but it is a highly lucrative local commodity which means it is secretly served and birds are obtained through black market sources. Once prepared it is very difficult to determine what bird was actually used. However, DNA Barcoding is the new hope for the song birds. A new project aims to establish the method as a test if restaurant owners are trying to pass off illegally trapped birds as chicken or other legal species.

The project is a three-year collaboration between researchers at the University of Pisa, Italy, and the University of Cyprus, Nicosia, as well as the Ministry of the Interior's Cyprus Game and Fauna Service and the conservation group BirdLife Cyprus. So far, the team's unpublished work has shown that sequences from COI are enough to distinguish 81 bird species. This worked even when the DNA was extracted from meat baked at 90 °C, and cooked with salt or vinegar — a method that matches local gastronomy but that could degrade the DNA. 

With the help of their colleagues in Pisa, the team at the University of Cyprus was able to set up a laboratory to conduct DNA Barcoding on site. Furthermore, as part of the project two game-service officers were trained to enable them to testify on DNA evidence in court cases. This approach seems to be successful as the method has already been used in two pending court cases.

It is encouraging that methods such as DNA Barcoding can actually help to make a difference in such cases. However, lets be clear on that - the real change will only happen if humans start to develop respect for the species they share the planet with. We are not talking about a crucial source for food without the local human population can't obtain essential nutrients. This is an example for something completely unnecessary only maintained illegally because there are enough people that pay good money to have this dish. It reminds me a lot of the shark-fin soup that has no nutritional value and is still served with the excuse that it is an old deeply rooted tradition in local culture which is also a pro argument for Ambelopoulia. Well, I am curious if someone asked the younger generation about that kind of tradition. I met and talked with a number of students (school and university) who all reject these kinds of dishes, that are part of their respective culture, for what they are - unnecessary, brainless slaughter of animals. There is hope.

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