Sperm Race Helping Save Sugar-Lapping Hihi
“It’s likely you’ve never heard of a hihi, let alone seen one in the wild. Also known as stitchbirds, these colourful little critters are a true taonga. They’re only found in New Zealand, and currently restricted to just seven sanctuary sites,” University of Otago research fellow Helen Taylor writes for The Conversation.
“Without the caché of kiwi or kākāpō, hihi have gone largely ignored by conservation fans and also, crucially, by funders. Researchers have been interested in these sunny little birds for decades because of their crazy mating system and high-octane lifestyle,” Taylor writes.
“A major part of hihi research goes into figuring out ways to make more hihi and get them in more places. Now, we’re combining research on hihi sperm with a major fundraising effort to try to turn this bird’s fortunes around.
“Researchers are studying sperm quality to figure out what contributes to the low breeding success of the hihi.
“I’m looking for links between inbreeding and sperm quality in native New Zealand birds, including the hihi. To measure bird sperm quality, we look at three things: sperm swimming speed, sperm length and the proportion of sperm with abnormalities (two heads/no tail etc.).
“Getting this data from wild birds is challenging for a number of reasons.
“To overcome the issues, I’ve designed a mobile sperm lab that runs off a small generator so I can take it pretty much anywhere. It houses my sperm speed measuring set up, plus some heat pads to keep anything that touches the sperm at a constant temperature.
“I collected sperm and DNA samples from 128 males and am currently analysing the data to investigate the connection between sperm quality and inbreeding in this species.
“At the same time, we’re attempting to address the major lack of funding for hihi conservation by encouraging people to bet on which of my 128 males will have the fastest sperm.”
Original article by Helen Taylor, The Conversation, April 12, 2018.
Photo by Mhairi McCready.