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Genomic insights assist conservation of kuaka Whenua Hou

With only 200 kuaka Whenua Hou (Whenua Hou diving petrel) breeding in a single 1.8-hectare colony on Whenua Hou (Codfish Island), the entire species is at risk if a disaster impacts breeding at that site. 

Common diving petrel / kuaka

Common diving petrels (kuaka) are closely related to kuaka Whenua Hou and breed within the same dune system. As the name suggests, Common diving petrels are much more numerous than kuaka Whenua Hou and have a wider breeding distribution throughout the Southern Ocean. 

Hybridisation between these two species has been observed, and one aim of the project is to assess genomic impacts of this hybridisation. 

Future actions could include translocations of kuaka Whenua Hou to a new site to minimise hybridisation and create an “insurance policy” for the population. 

What we are doing
Understanding of the genetic diversity of the population can help select individuals for translocation, as well as help predict the impact of translocation on future genetic diversity of the species. 

Genomics Aotearoa HQG+PG researchers from MWLR are working with DoC, Ngāi Tahu, and Papatipu Rūnaka (including Whenua Hou Komiti and Kaitiaki Rōpū) to establish baseline genomic data that can be used to inform conservation management. 

The team’s draft reference genome for kuaka Whenua Hou is complemented by low coverage whole genome sequencing of 69 diving petrels, including both kuaka Whenua Hou and kuaka, to compare genetic diversity, and to assess potential impacts of hybridisation. 

What we’ve found
Preliminary population genomic analyses indicate differentiation between kuaka and Common diving petrels. Work is continuing to quantify genetic diversity and assess the extent of inbreeding. 

Project researcher Natalie Forsdick said that we now have a depth of knowledge that we didn’t have before. 

“The kuaka Whenua Hou genome was generated using PacBio HiFi and Dovetail Omni-C sequencing technologies, both of which are relatively new in the Aotearoa genomics space, so we are building capability with these technologies.”

The impact
This basic biological understanding is the foundation for targeted management for the kuaka Whenua Hou, but at the same time it opens doors for us to use the expertise and processes more widely in conservation.

Read more about High Quality Genomes and Population Genomics here