North Texas Daily

Professor works to preserve Attwater’s Prairie Chicken

Professor works to preserve Attwater’s Prairie Chicken

April 17
22:19 2013

Joshua Knopp / Staff Writer

With the concrete jungle expanding more and more each year and the natural jungle shrinking, biologists and environmentalists have worked to conserve nature for a long time.

This is the field where biology professor Jeff Johnson found his calling.
Currently, he’s involved in research to help bring back the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, which once numbered in the millions along gulf coastal prairies, but is now highly endangered.

“I value nature,” he said. “And I feel that I can contribute my abilities for preserving nature.”

Johnson is a conservation biologist, or a scientist who focuses on maintaining diversity in the biosphere.

If not for the breeding program started in the 1990’s, the chickens would likely be extinct,  Johnson said.

“They’ve made tremendous progress,” Johnson said. “This is a very difficult bird to not only keep in captivity, but keep a breeding population.”

About 200 now exist in captivity, and all of those are the progeny of just 17 chickens with which scientists started the breeding program.

The chickens that were released into the wild haven’t faired well, and Johnson and his team are researching one of the theories why. They’ve found evidence that inbreeding has become a big problem in the captive breeding program.

Though the program facilitators make an effort to minimize inbreeding to produce stronger offspring, over time the chickens’ familial relationships seem to have been lost. Using the same paternity tests they would use with humans, Johnson’s group has been tracking inbreeding in the captive population.

They found that many inbred chicks simply die within a week of hatching.

Biology graduate student Susan Hammerly, a member of Johnson’s research team, has found that significantly more inbreeding occurs than breeders initially thought.

“With Attwaters’, there’s some inbreeding,” she said. “So we’ve been looking at how that affects population.”

Johnson said that fixing the  breeding programs will help produce stronger chicks.

Terry Rossignol, refuge manager and Attwater’s Prairie Chicken recovery team leader, is heading research on the other factor that is hurting the chickens’ reintegration – fire ants.

Rossignol said that fire ants provide a two-fold threat. First, they attack and kill the chicks themselves, sometimes even invading eggs while they are hatching.

“When the chick starts coming out of the egg, it’s just enough that the fire ants are alerted and start attacking an egg,” Rossignol said. “What we’ve found is they’ll get into the egg and start eating the chicks alive before they even get out of an egg. They are very, very aggressive critters.”

The ants also decimate the local insect population, which chicks feed on almost exclusively for the first few weeks of their lives, Rossignol said.

Johnson said that the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is what biologists call an umbrella species – a species that greatly predicts the survivability of their overall environment.

Saving the chicken means saving an entire ecosystem, he said.

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