Volcanic Supereruptions Have Changed The Genetics of The Kiwi Bird

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Two massive volcanic eruptions erupted in New Zealand, and their ash impacted the genetics of North Island brown kiwi birds. This is what a University of Toronto Scarborough new study has shown.

The North Island brown kiwi population (Apteryx mantelli) is split into four distinct lineages that inhabit different parts of New Zealand’s North Island. It is not clear why these four distinct lineages exist. Although humans have caused significant damage to the habitat of brown kiwi birds and they are now considered endangered species, it is not possible to explain their genetic differences. The island’s Indigenous Māori people have inhabited the island for about 700 years, while the Europeans only began immigrating in large numbers around 160 years ago—far too recently to account for the divergence. Researchers have now discovered that two volcanic eruptions destroyed most of the birds, and separated the survivors. Few were able to pass their genes on.

The DNA of the birds can be used to determine where they came from. The study author says they are very different, even though they are the same species. Dr. Jordan Bemmels. “What we discovered allows us to conclude that these volcanoes had an impact on brown Kiwi, which continues to this day.”

The Taupo volcanoTwo of the most powerful eruptions of recent geological history occurred in New Zealand’s North Island. Around 30,000 years back, the North Island was covered with thick layers of ash and other igneous rocks. Around 2,000 years later, the volcano erupted a second time, this time with New Zealand’s largest eruption in the past 20,000 years. Taupo volcano is still active.

The genetics and geographic locations of 57 brown-kiwi specimens were examined by the researchers. They were gathered from New Zealand conservation officials in the 1980s to 2000s. Bemmels used a supercomputer for 2D mapping of the island. After that, the researchers placed the kiwi along with their genetic data in their current locations.

Bemmels added habitat characteristics for birds, the tendency of birds to stay near their birthplace, and other migration patterns to the model. He then added the vast impact of the two volcanic eruptions—from how many brown kiwi the blast may have killed to how inhabitable it would have rendered areas of the island.

The computer created a simulation of the eruptions and compared 12 different models of how birds could have been affected. Bemmels determined which outcome would place the specific lines of brown kiwi near their current location with similar genetic characteristics.

Bemmels states that this is very different to other genetic simulation methods where populations are hypothetically modeled and there’s no spatial component. “No one, as far as I know, has created a model for a natural disaster such that it can be analyzed to determine the impact on genetic diversity and distribution of genetic group.”

Most likely, the eruption destroyed most of the birds and left a few scattered on the island’s fringes. Surviving groups most likely remained isolated from one another because they were separated by natural barriers such as rivers and mountains—but eventually came back into contact over thousands of years. The second eruption, although on a smaller scale, had the same effect: death, further isolation, and stronger genetic signatures as survivors passed their genes down.

The results also indicate that the kiwi began to move back towards the center of the island as it recovered from its volcanic eruptions. The genetic signatures they have today were passed on over several generations.

This study challenges the notion that long-term geological changes, such as climate change, glaciers, or the formation mountain ranges, can have a lasting impact on a species over many centuries.

Bemmels said that “people tend to focus on very slowly changing things.” “This could open the doors for people to explore how major disasters that wipe populations out really quickly could leave a legacy in other species—and try to see whether what we found is really the exception.”

The paper is “Legacy of supervolcanic volcanic eruptions on the population genetic structure brown kiwi” is published in Current Biology (2022). Materials provided by University of Toronto.

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