It is not every day you can have a direct impact on an entire species. And yet, that is exactly what the Bell Museum’s very own Dr. Sushma Reddy hopes to accomplish. Dr. Reddy is collaborating with Dr. Francesca Cuthbert, Professor, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, who has spent decades focusing on the research and recovery efforts of the Piping Plover. The new collaboration is to study the genetics of all individuals of this population.
In the Great Lakes area, the Great Lakes Piping Plover is an endangered species due to habitat loss. Just like humans, Piping Plovers prefer sandy beaches and are sensitive to the presence of people and their associated actions. The Great Lake Piping Plovers were declared endangered in 1986 when their populations had dwindled to less than 10 breeding pairs. Today, the population is on the rise due to the over 30 years of active recovery efforts to protect their habitat and monitor long-term changes.
A team of scientists, volunteers and park rangers have contributed numerous efforts to help repopulate the Piping Plovers. These range from protecting existing adult Piping Plovers at their nesting sites from predators and humans to aiding population expansion with captive rearing of the eggs/chicks. When captive rearing is necessary, the plover eggs are taken to a safe environment where they are raised and the chicks later released. To continue recovering the plover population, the birds are banded and actively monitored. This monitoring includes the tracking of the Piping Plover’s nests, eggs, chicks and migration habits throughout their lifetime. These recovery efforts have helped the plover population significantly, growing from single-digit numbers to an impressive 70-100 breeding pairs.
The active management efforts by the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Team is also a unique opportunity to expand the genetic understanding of the small endangered population in a manner where we can access DNA from almost 100% of the birds. Since all birds are banded upon birth, the team keeps track of the movements and breeding of the entire population. When birds are captured for banding, they were also able to collect DNA samples from their feces or mouth swabs.
To collect DNA samples for this research, Dr. Reddy headed into the field – with some helpers! This summer, Dr. Reddy and her daughters traveled to Upper Michigan to help the recovery team collect samples from the Piping Plovers. Dr. Reddy’s daughters were eager to get hands on with collection and were able to assist by handling tubes and labeling while Dr. Reddy and Dr. Cuthbert, trained in handling live birds, swabbed the mouths of chicks. The team also collected feather and fecal samples as alternative sources of DNA. Wrapping up the field day, Dr. Reddy instructed her daughters to create their own journal entries about their experience to post on their personal blog.
Out in the field releasing Piping Plover chicks.