Scientist rewarded for his egg-spertise

November 22, 2011

Dr James Haile examines an extinct Madagascan Elephant bird egg

Dr James Haile from Murdoch University’s ancient DNA lab has been awarded a prestigious Australian Research Council (ARC) fellowship to undertake work on eggshell genetics.

Dr Haile was awarded the $375,000 Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) to support his ongoing work on the use of eggshell as a molecular and biochemical resource for conservation biology and paleogenetics.

Dr Haile will extract DNA and other biomolecules from hundreds of eggshell fragments and generate millions of DNA sequences.

The use of eggshell as a genetic resource is unusual, though it is an ideal source for biological samples.

“Eggshell is a material that is highly resistant to decay, and preserves DNA within its matrix,” Dr Haile said.

“This DNA can be extracted from the ground-up shell using specialised molecular techniques, then amplified and analysed using other cutting-edge methodologies.”

Dr Haile’s work will focus on eggshells from living and extinct bird species.

“Firstly, work on eggshells from Australian megapodes and cockatoos can provide information about mating strategies, longevity of the birds, nest site fidelity and so on.” Dr Haile said.

“This information in turn can inform conservation strategies.

“Secondly, work on eggshells from the extinct Australian Thunderbird and extinct Madagascan Elephant bird can help to reveal the nature of their demise, whether it was through man-made causes, climate change or a combination of both.

“These results will help clarify the potential effect of environmental changes on currently endangered species.”

Dr Haile’s work will also support anti-poaching strategies.

Endangered Australian bird species are vulnerable to illegal poaching of eggs, which are smuggled out of the country and sold to collectors.

“Eggshell genetics often provides the only means of identification of smuggled eggs, and in a conservation setting, together with information from stable isotopes, can help with the implementation of appropriate management strategies."

Dr Haile will work on the project for three years, commencing in 2012.

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