Past Exhibitions :: New York Discovery: A New Study of an Extinct Bird

Wednesday, May 2, 2012 - Friday, June 1, 2012
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The Auk Cover
The cover story of the April 2012 issue of The Auk, an international journal of ornithology, highlights a paper by
New York State Museum scientist Dr. Jeremy Kirchman and his collaborators. The researchers obtained the first DNA sequences from the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis). These data were used to understand the evolutionary relationships of what was once New York’s only native parrot species.

Courtesy of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the University of California Press.
Genetic Studies on the Carolina Parakeet Reveals Evolutionary Origins

The Carolina Parakeet became extinct before any systematic study of its ecology or evolution was undertaken. New insights concerning the natural history of extinct species can come from only two sources: studies of related species, and the study
of museum specimens.

New York State Museum scientist and Curator of Ornitholgy, Dr. Jeremy Kirchman extracted DNA from the Museum’s four specimens of Carolina Parakeet and teamed up with parrot experts at New Mexico State University to use the genetic data to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the species.

Once common and abundant, the Carolina Parakeet was in decline by the 1830s. By the turn-of-the-century it was restricted to the swamps of Florida. The last reliable sightings were in the late 1920s. The exact timing and cause of its demise are unknown, but Carolina Parakeets were shot for sport, feathers, and to guard against crop depredations. Destruction of bottomland forests likely also played a role in its extinction. The Carolina Parakeet now stands with the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) as an iconic example of the ability of humans to exterminate even widespread and abundant continental bird species.

A phylogeny is a hypothesis for the evolutionary history of a group of species. This phylogeny of parrot species indicates that the Carolina Parakeet shared a distant ancestor with parakeets and macaws that live in tropical South America, and that the Carolina Parakeet colonized North America about 5.5 million years ago. This was well before North America and South America were joined together by the formation of the Panama land bridge about 3.5 million years ago.

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