Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fellowship Reflections (week 17)

Alaska Planning

Diagram - polartrec

A fair amount of time over recent weeks has been spent planning the forthcoming trip to Alaska. It has been hard to avoid some horrendous flights to get to where we are going (I have something like 36 hours worth of travel to get to Nome - Nome is home for 3 weeks), but it's going to be worth it. We are heading up to Nome because the Seward Peninsula is a good breeding ground for Bar-tailed Godwits, though they are notoriously hard to find on their nests.

A Nome Godwit - Ralph Poanessa

They have fanastic cryptic plumage and sit tight on their nests, apparently you can get 1-2m away before they fly off! So the trick will be finding them. A current expedition in Alaska, finding Bristle-thighed curlews, is taking about 40 person-hours per nest. Here's a great photo to give a sense of what the challenge will be...

Photo USGS

Nome is also the ending point of the the famous Iditarod, the trail dog sled race. Not quite the season for it when we are there, given we will have 22 or so hours of daylight, but I'm sure we'll find some of the history of the race around the streets of Nome. Bring it on!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Fellowship Reflections (week 15)

Sexing It Up

Red Knots are monomorphic, they show no significantly different features that would allow them to be sexed in the field. So, over the last week or so, my focus up here at Massey has been on methods to extract DNA from Red Knots and to use this DNA to determine their sex. Of importance is developing a method that allows me to extract and amplify DNA from feathers. We usually pluck only about 3-5 breast feathers and 2 scapulas from the birds. I therefore have trialled just using one feather as a DNA source and this has been hugely successful. I was able to extract DNA using a couple of methods, amplify it using PCR and primers that were specific to our lovely Knots, then run then DNA through a gel to get our results. Here's me looking all geeked up in the Farside Lab, part of the Alan Wilson Centre at Massey (I think the blue gloves will take off on the catwalk this winter).

An interesting thing about bird sex is that unlike humans, where the male is XY and the female XX, in birds the male is ZZ and the female ZW. Therefore, when doing electrophoresis the female gives two bands, at 400bp and 600bp, and the male a single band at 400bp. Here's a photo of my first gel, which shows a bit of messiness in the first column, beyond the ladder, but a clear male in the second column and some clear females out to the right. It works! Yay.