How DNA sequencing can reduce bird strikes at airports

This is the first time next-generation DNA sequencing technology was used to examine semi-digested food from the intestines of birds. But why sequence that?
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor
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Birds have collided with windows, been gruesomely chopped up by engine blades, and in some cases, they’ve caused emergency landings (on the Hudson River, for example) and even crashes. Animal collisions have directly caused 221 deaths since 1988. In addition to the public safety risk, commercial airlines lose over $1 billion per year due to repair expenses and delays related to "bird strikes."

New York's JFK and Chicago's O'Hare, for example, employ full-time wildlife biologists. Verge reports

Wildlife biologists track bird populations using radar, and then employ "harassment strategies" to spook them off. Noisemakers, lasers, and pyrotechnics are among the most common approaches, although some airports also play noises of either birds in distress or predators…When conventional efforts don't work, specialists will make changes to the airport's environment -- eliminating standing water, killing off common bird prey, and reducing the accessibility of perch-friendly ledges -- in an effort to make the habitat less desirable. And when all else fails, they'll resort to deadly tactics.

And now, DNA sequencing! But not of the birds themselves...

DNA has previously been used to identify species that have hit aircraft, but this time DNA was used to look at what attracted birds to airports in the first place. Now, for the first time ever, they’re applying next-generation high-throughput DNA sequencing technology to semi-digested food found in dead bird stomachs. 

As it turns out, exactly what birds eat is (surprisingly) a bit of a mystery. For example, little is known about the diet of birds, such as the red-tailed black cockatoo, Science explains, which hangs around an airport in Perth, Australia. 

  • Murdoch University researchers collected the carcasses of 77 birds from the Perth runway over a year. 
  • They collected a large amount of dietary data from 16 species and generated 151,000 DNA sequences of samples from the birds’ digestive tracts.
  • The most commonly identified vertebrate was the house mouse. Grasshoppers were the most common invertebrate, and Poaceae grasses were the most commonly identified plant.
  • These results suggest that the best plan would be rodent control and grass species that are less hospitable to tasty insects.

The work has clear benefits for ecology research as well. The team paid special attention to species of particular concern: nankeen kestrels, galahs, and white-faced herons. In addition to a better understanding of migration strategies, the team confirmed that kestrels fed primarily on feral mice and grasshoppers, the galahs were targeting an invasive weed called Erodium, and herons were eating an invasive mosquito fish found in airport waterways.

Other Australian airports, as well as those in the U.S. and Denmark, want to launch similar studies for their airport hazard management plans. Good news, since according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s wildlife strike database, there were 10,760 reported strikes at American airports in 2012 alone. 

The work was published in Investigative Genetics last week. 

Image: Coghlan et al. Investigative Genetics 2013 (top) / eagle strikes PA-24 Comanche from FAA (below)

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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