Cape Parrot Genetics Confirmed in PhD Research
The Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus), an endangered species, is endemic to forests of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo Province with less than 1 600 remaining in the wild.
To earn his PhD in Genetics, Dr Riël Coetzer successfully confirmed the species status of the Cape Parrot and examined the phylogeography and conservation management of this enigmatic species. He was supervised by Dr Sandi Willows-Munro, Professor Colleen Downs and Professor Mike Perrin.
‘His research has contributed significantly towards the management and conservation of this species,’ said Willows-Munro. Coetzer’s examiners were equally unanimous that he had made an important contribution to biodiversity science, conservation genetics and ornithology in South Africa.
‘I always wanted to work on endangered animals, and make my mark within the conservation research world,’ said Coetzer on his choice of a PhD research topic. ‘It is important for me to help improve our knowledge of our different ecosystems. As I’m born and raised in the Eastern Cape, which is part of the distribution range of this scarce species, it made sense to focus on the Cape Parrot.’
Coetzer’s research had three main focus areas: (1) the taxonomy of the Cape Parrot and its position within the genus - he proved that it is indeed a distinct species despite international opinion that views it as a sub species; (2) the genetic diversity among the current populations across their distribution range and how it compares with historical data (European logging activities and dry conditions adversely affecting populations historically over time); and (3) the assessment of a set of genetic markers for possible forensic applications.
‘One of the major threats to Cape Parrots in South Africa, other than habitat loss, is illegal trafficking of these charismatic birds for the exotic pet trade,’ explained Coetzer. ‘It is therefore important to have an effective DNA analysis tool to identify confiscated animals and return them, if possible, to their original population.’
Coetzer identified a suitable set of microsatellite markers for use in forensic case work, which can be used to identify the population of origin of confiscated birds, to verify the legality of traded birds and to link a criminal to illegal trafficking activities.
Coetzer is currently a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of the Free State. He thanked his parents for instilling a love for nature in him from a young age, and his family, friends and supervisors for their support during his PhD research. ‘I couldn’t have done any of this without you all,’ he said.