23 Jul 2015

Brown kiwi's genetic secrets revealed

3:20 pm on 23 July 2015

A team of European scientists has, for the first time, decoded the genes of the North Island brown kiwi.

North Island brown kiwi

North Island brown kiwi Photo: Supplied: Scimex

The team has mapped out the kiwi's entire genetic blueprint, revealing the birds' lack of colour vision but noting their excellent sense of smell, which helps them forage for food at night.

Genetics researcher Lara Shepherd said the new information did not hide the harsh reality of the kiwi population decline.

"The study gives insight into how and when some of the unique features of kiwi evolved, such as its excellent sense of smell. However, this extensive new genetic data set won't stop the decline of kiwi in the wild - currently at 2 percent per year - which is largely from predation by introduced mammals."

Dr Shepherd said she hoped funding put aside in the 2015 Budget for kiwi predator control would be successful.

Canterbury University genetics and conservation lecturer Tammy Steeves said she was confident the new findings would lead to a surge in genomics research in New Zealand.

"Ultimately, we want to preserve the genomic diversity of threatened bird species so they have the ability to adapt to environmental change.

"How we measure genomic diversity, and how we make decisions about how best to preserve it, is changing from having information for just a few genes to thousands of genes."

She said the research would become a foundation for mapping other birds' genes.

Professor David Penny, of Massey University's Institute of Fundamental Sciences, said while he was concerned that the research was conducted outside New Zealand, he was pleased with the result.

"This should help conservation efforts in that we know more about the real lifestyle of kiwi. My guess is that we suspected these things but it is very good to know there is now evidence for these abilities."

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