Collections as a basis for genetic studies
During guided tours through the museum’s bird collection, I keep emphasizing that our over 150,000 bird objects can be regarded as a DNA bank. It is possible to extract genetic material from a small skin sample. Especially in the case of species threatened with extinction with small remnant populations, it is important to know whether the species’ genetic variation is sufficient for the population to survive. This is especially important for reintroduction projects. If animals are too closely related, inbreeding can occur. Inbreeding may result in low fertility and even in sterile birds that cannot produce young.
Possible inbreeding effects can only be reliably tested if one is familiar with the genetic diversity of the past. Examining historical specimens from scientific collections can help to clarify this. When I was asked by Tom Gilbert, Professor of Paleogenomics at the University of Copenhagen, if we had samples of the threatened Crested Ibis (Nipponia nippon), I had no idea what would follow. I often decline these sorts of requests of tissue to safeguard our specimens, but in this case I decided the request would be justified. According to the IUCN, there are only 300 adult birds of this enigmatic ibis species left in the wild, in two localities in Shaanxi Province in China. Formerly they also occurred in Japan, South and North Korea, Taiwan and Russia, but they are now thought to be extinct there.