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Using naturally shed feathers for individual identification, genetic parentage analyses, and population monitoring in an endangered Eastern imperial eagle (Aquila heliaca) population from Kazakhstan

Authors


Jamie A. Rudnick, Fax: 765-496-2422; E-mail: jrudnick@purdue.edu

Abstract

Genetic analyses on noninvasively collected samples have revolutionized how populations are monitored. Most noninvasive monitoring studies have used hair or scat for individual identification of elusive mammals, but here we utilize naturally shed feathers. The Eastern imperial eagle (EIE) is a species of conservation concern throughout Central Asia and, like most raptors, EIEs are inherently challenging to study because adults are difficult to capture and band using conventional techniques. Over 6 years, we noninvasively collected hundreds of adult feathers and directly sampled EIE chicks at a national nature reserve in Kazakhstan. All samples were genetically sexed and genotyped at a suite of microsatellite loci. Genetically profiled adult feathers identified and monitored the presence of individual eagles over time, enabling us to address a variety of issues related to the biology, demography, and conservation of EIEs. Specifically, we characterized (i) the genetic mating system, (ii) relatedness among mated pairs, (iii) chick sex ratios, and (iv) annual turnover in an adult breeding population. We show that EIEs are genetically monogamous and furthermore, there is no apparent relatedness-based system of mate choice (e.g. inbreeding avoidance). Results indicate that annual adult EIE survivorship (84%) is lower than expected for a long-lived raptor, but initial analyses suggest the current reproductive rate at our study site is sufficient to maintain a stable breeding population. The pristine habitat at our study site supports an EIE population that is probably the most demographically robust in the world; thus, our results caution that populations in marginal habitats may not be self-sustaining.

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