March 12, 2014

Veterinary Profs Hope To Stop Disturbing Quail Decline

The iconic bobwhite quail, a favorite among hunters and wildlife enthusiasts alike throughout the United States, has literally flown the coop – its numbers have been decreasing alarmingly for decades, but a groundbreaking project led by a team of Texas A&M University researchers could prove to be a big move toward understanding historic and future bobwhite population trends.

a bobwhite quail

Bobwhite quail numbers have been in decline for decades. Photo: Shutterstock

Dr. Chris Seabury and research associates (Yvette Halley and Eric Bhattarai), along with members of the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center (Drs. Ian Tizard, Donald Brightsmith) at Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences have completed the first-ever draft genome assembly for a wild bobwhite quail named Pattie-Marie, and their work has been published in the current issue of the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

The project, which took two years to complete, also involved colleagues from the University of Missouri (Drs. Jerry Taylor and Jared Decker), Texas A&M AgriLife Research (Drs. Charles Johnson and Dale Rollins), Texas A&M’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences (Dr. Markus Peterson), and two private-industry scientists (Dr. Scot E. Dowd and Paul M. Seabury).

“By sequencing and assembling the bobwhite quail genome, the team produced the most comprehensive resource currently available for cutting-edge interdisciplinary research in the bobwhite,” Seabury says.

One of the most prized American hunting birds, and a cultural icon among outdoor enthusiasts, the bobwhite quail has undergone a mysterious decline that has been documented for more than 50 years.  Once present by the millions in the Midwest, South and Southwest, bobwhite numbers are down as much as 80 percent in some areas.

In Oklahoma, declining bobwhite quail numbers are especially alarming, with one study relating that decline to the number of quail hunters, which has dropped from 111,000 in 1986 to only 30,000 last year.

The bird was recently named the No.1 bird in decline in North America by the Audubon Society.

In Texas, equally serious declines have also been noted.  According to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department figures, the bobwhite quail has declined every year since 1981.

At present, there appears to be no single or specific reason for the decline. Loss of natural habitat, changes in land use, pesticides, the potential for bird diseases, and even climate change have all been mentioned, but no definitive explanation has been discovered for the quail decline.

“Our study is important because prior to this, we had no ability to use whole-genome technologies to monitor levels of genetic diversity over time, define the genetic relationships among existing populations, or draw important inferences regarding bobwhite physiological interactions with their environment,” Seabury explains.

Dr. Chris Seabury

Dr. Chris Seabury

“We now have a formal resource for studying the bird and identifying new or perhaps even more specific reasons for its serious decline.  This resource gives us a way to look at new population and management strategies, but also a means to conduct very detailed molecular studies focusing on ecotoxicology, reproduction, and physiology.

“Now we can peel back new layers of science to thoroughly look at many different levels of the quail problem, including the utilization of whole-genome information for monitoring modern genetic diversity, reconstructing historic population trends, and even considering genetic similarity in relation to the translocation of wild bobwhites to suitable habitats.”

The study was funded by private donations from Joe Crafton, members of Park Cities Quail, and the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation.

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Media contact: Keith Randall, News & Information Services, at (979) 945-4644 or Chris Seabury at (979) 845-2720

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