Studies of how to improve translocation outcomes of Apteryx mantelli focusing on breeding, hybrids, diversity, and telomeres : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology at Massey University - Te Kunenga Ki Purehuroa, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Genetic diversity contributes to the resilience of populations and, thus, to their potential to adapt to change and rebound after episodes of population decline. At the same time, many threatened species are confined to small populations with severely reduced access to gene flow. Since lost connectivity can result in inbreeding, translocations have become an increasingly important tool used by conservationists. However, the relative risks associated with inbreeding are difficult to weigh against potential negative fitness effects of outcrossing and hybridization. North Island brown kiwi, Apteryx mantelli, have a long, documented history of management and many severely isolated populations. The goal of this thesis was to determine current gaps in knowledge for successful genetic management of A. mantelli, explore closing those gaps using established hybrid populations and make recommendations for future translocations. First, information from past studies of Apteryx genetics was synthesised, which drew attention to the fact that available genetic data are insufficient for informing genetic management, predicting translocation outcomes, and linking genetic diversity to population fitness and local adaptation. Genome science combined with a strategic sampling regime was identified as crucial for acquiring the missing data. Second, an in-depth theoretical and empirical analysis of A. mantelli breeding behaviour was conducted. The results of this analysis showed that A. mantelli have the potential for polygamy, shows no signs of assortative mating, and breed in groups in certain conditions. These features of A. mantelli behaviour increase the likelihood of successful genetic rescue after reinforcement translocations. Next, the genetic diversity of the mixed-origin A. mantelli population on Ponui Island was investigated. Genotyping-by-sequencing analyses showed that this population constitutes a hybrid swarm in which founding parental genomes remain represented and levels of diversity are high compared to reference mainland populations. In addition to these studies, I conducted the first investigation of Apteryx telomeres. My theoretical analyses and empirical findings showed that telomere analyses of as long-lived species as A. mantelli are challenging and that telomere length is unlikely to be a suitable marker for determining Apteryx age and viability. Taken together, I suggest that the success of the hybrid population on Ponui Island indicates that mixed origin translocations should be considered as part of Apteryx management. However, I stress the need to (1) determine the role of local adaptation in Apteryx diversification, (2) study the impact of inbreeding, and (3) undertake investigations into informative markers of age and fitness on the individual and population-level. Investigation of epigenetic regulation of gene expression will be highly interesting for both these quests.