Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis) using stick tool to reach food

The highly endangered ʻalalā, which is a proficient tool-user, stands to benefit from efforts to study its genome. Credit: ZSSD/Minden Pictures/Getty

Genomics

Matchmaking clues for clever crows that are close to extinction

One male bird has yielded all of the genome for the ‘alalā.

A high-quality genome lays bare the genetic recipe for the Hawaiian crow, or ʻalalā, one of the smartest — and most highly endangered — birds on the planet.

As of March, 2018, there were 142 living ʻalalā (Corvus hawaiiensis), all of them descended from just nine individuals. Because of this extreme population bottleneck, the crow is affected by problems associated with inbreeding, including low hatching success.

A team led by Jolene Sutton at the University of Hawaii at Hilo sequenced the genome of a male bird named Hō ‘ike i ka pono, which roughly translates to ‘to show excellence’, among other meanings. Conservationists will be able to use the genome to estimate the genetic relationship between birds, knowledge that could inform captive breeding. The genome also has the potential to help managers select for genetic variants that produce strong immune systems, which could ward off diseases that are among the key threats to the bird’s future.

The genome features lengthy repetitive elements, which are common in inbred species. Encouragingly, the genome also includes significant genetic diversity in regions linked with immune function, providing options to breeders as they try to ensure a future for the species.