Researchers have found a key to the habitat puzzle to improve long-term survival of the endangered Florida Scrub-Jay, a species at risk of extinction with just over 5,000 birds left in the world. The high, dry, sandy scrub-oak patches where the bird lives and breeds exclusively have been prime real estate for developers and citrus farms. Only about 5 percent of the original habitat remains.
The new research reveals a direct connection between genetic variation of Florida Scrub-Jay groups and geographic distances separating patches of scrub-oak. Researchers analyzed DNA samples of Florida Scrub-Jays and evaluated how their genetic differences were affected by the gaps of habitat. They found that if habitat patches were separated by more than 2 to 3 miles, the distance was too far to permit free interbreeding.
“We now know how to configure the stepping stones of scrub-oak habitat so they can link together Florida Scrub-Jay populations and maintain sufficient genetic diversity to promote long-term survival of the species,” says John Fitzpatrick, co-author of the research and executive director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “These research findings will be critical to a revision of the recovery plan for endangered Florida Scrub-Jays.”
Fitzpatrick is a team leader for the group of government and university biologists working on submitting a revised Florida Scrub-Jay recovery plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by year’s end.
Image: Louise Hunt