Using Genetic Tools to Identify Populations Within Species Could Ease Infrastructure Mitigation

Recent research suggests that bird populations are declining at alarming rates across the United States. Over the last century, local, national, and international efforts to limit declines in bird populations have resulted in state and federal laws that now protect most of California’s 650 bird species. To comply with these protections, transportation infrastructure projects often face strict mitigation requirements, which can be expensive and cause delays. Understanding a project’s effects on specific bird populations can refine mitigation requirements and optimize infrastructure planning.

The tools for identifying separate populations within species and understanding protected birds’ seasonal movement have been limited until recently. New genetic and genomic tools now provide a method for understanding population differentiation, which is vital to a wide array of conservation goals including estimating population declines, identifying potential for adaptation to stressors, measuring connectivity between populations, and estimating inbreeding. Because infrastructure projects can directly impact genetic diversity and connectivity, a toolkit to assess population structure and the distribution of genetic variation could aid in predicting and mitigating the impacts of such projects. As a test case, researchers at the University of California, Davis, sequenced entire genomes for 40 individual Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna) from across California to identify breeding populations and develop a genetic toolkit to assign individuals to those populations. The presence of this species at bridge construction sites has resulted in construction delays in part because little information exists on the status of different populations within the species.

This research brief summarizes findings and implications from the project.