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2017 Stephen J O'Brien Award

2017 Stephen J O'Brien Award

The Stephen J. O'Brien Award for the best student paper published in AGA’s Journal of Heredity is intended to honor Dr. O'Brien's many years of service as Chief Editor of the Journal.  This year, twelve articles in Volume 107 that were first-authored by a student were considered, and the award presented to Laura Bergner for her article, European Colonization, Not Polynesian Arrival, Impacted Population Size and Genetic Diversity in the Critically Endangered New Zealand Kakapo (Laura M. Bergner, Nicolas Dussex, Ian G. Jamieson, Bruce C. Robertson. J Hered (2016) 107 (7): 593-602).

The award committee had the following comments on this top-ranked article:

All the top papers combined results from their particular study species with issues at a larger scale, tests of hypotheses, and findings that impact our views of biological processes. Bergner et al. presented a thorough and substantial analysis of historical and contemporary samples from a critically endangered megafauna, with an impressive sample size (n = 54) for now-extinct populations from museum collections. 

They used conventional markers to provide synthetic analyses and a thoughtful interpretation for contemporary conservation.

Award recipients receive a $2,000 prize, a certificate, and up to $1,500 toward expenses to attend an AGA Presidents Symposium. 

The article is freely available to read and download.

Bergner et al. 2016 Study Summary and Importance

Island endemic species are often vulnerable to decline following human colonization, and contemporary management can benefit from understanding the history of decline. Our study examined the recent history of the critically endangered Kakapo parrot Strigops habroptilus and the role humans played in their decline. Kakapo were previously abundant and widespread throughout New Zealand, but the contemporary population numbers only 155 individuals. Polynesian and European colonization both strongly impacted native species, but the relative importance of these two waves of settlement was previously unknown for Kakapo. We investigated this question using microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA markers to analyze both contemporary and historical individuals. We compared genetic diversity over time, and used demographic modeling to estimate the timing and magnitude of decline. We found a decrease in population size and genetic diversity that coincided with European arrival, but no such decline associated with Polynesian settlement. Our results support the hypothesis that the primary cause of decline was the introduction of mammals such as stoats by Europeans.

Understanding the time-frame of decline is a central question in Kakapo conservation; it was previously known that Kakapo exhibit low genetic diversity, but knowing how quickly this loss occurred can help in managing what genetic diversity remains. As it is likely that mammalian predators were the main culprit in the decline of Kakapo, our results lend support to the current strategy of maintaining predator-free offshore islands. Our study provides an example of the utility of a historical genetic perspective in contemporary endangered species management.

Laura Bergner Biography

Laura Bergner received a BSc from Davidson College, where her honors research focused on a novel gene affecting temporal coordination of spermatogenesis in Drosophila. After graduating she traveled to various countries on a Watson Fellowship studying bat ecology and conservation, followed by work in a molecular evolution lab at the University of Virginia. Laura earned her MSc in Zoology from the University of Otago, studying conservation genetics of the Kakapo parrot. She then spent a year as a visiting researcher at the Smithsonian Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics working on various projects including suboscine bird systematics and the population genetics of Borneo birds. Currently Laura is a PhD student at the University of Glasgow, where she is integrating field-based studies with genetic data from hosts and pathogens to examine ecological and anthropogenic factors driving pathogen diversity in vampire bats. Laura is broadly interested in applying genetic tools to questions about ecology and conservation, particularly in the context of anthropogenic impact on wildlife.

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