Avian Expert Articles

DNA Study Points to the Likely Cause of the Carolina Parakeet’s Demise

In today’s technological fields, advancements are being made faster than at any time during the history our species. Advancements in medicine, all forms of communications, and even gene-editing to move away from naturally occurring genetic defects have leap-frog events recorded in months and years rather than generational. These advancements not only benefit the human race, but can also be applied toward our fellow creatures on the earth. Some of these new discoveries include the possibility of bringing back extinct animals. With the right set of tools, such an ambitious endeavor could be realized in the near future. But first, a little history.

Carolina Parakeet
The last verified Carolina parakeet died in February 1918 in the Cincinnati Zoo. Here is a Carolina parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis ) on public display at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Photo by James St. John

The Carolina Parakeet

Parrots and other exotic birds are found in many locales. At one time, the United States was home to its own parrot species – one of two – that thrived within its borders. That bird was known as the Carolina Parakeet. This bird was found as far north as New York, as far south as Florida, and as far west as Colorado. These beautiful birds eventually died out in captivity in 1918. For over a hundred years, America has been deprived of its own exotic bird species.

The Carolina Parakeet was a small bird with a green body, a yellow head, and a red/orange face. For millions of years, these birds flocked throughout their adopted regions. As people began to colonize these regions, their interference in the habitats required for the Carolina Parakeet began to contribute to the birds’ decline in population. Eventually, and for a variety of reasons, the bird was soon extinct, never to grace the skies of America again.

sun conure

The Sun Conure Connection

Recently, scientists involved in gene-mapping visited the closest living relative of the Carolina Parakeet, the Sun Parakeet. The Sun Parakeet is found in the South American tropical regions. They are themselves considered a threatened species with more of the bird living in homes rather than the wild. Also known as the Sun Conure, this bird is the one that has yielded up its genome as a guide for the evolutionary biologists in mapping the genome of the extinct Carolina Parakeet. With DNA extracted from a stuffed bird, the scientists completed their studies to learn how the US-based parakeet actually declined and died off.

Their studies showed that expected warning indicators in the constantly developing DNA of these birds did not create a pointing finger to the suspected cause. Instead, it only proved that the decimation was probably our fault. However, a good thing that came from this mapping is what it could mean for other bird populations that are declining. Biologists could test DNA of living birds in an attempt to detect possible warning signs of the reason for their declines. This could go a long way in trying to help the bird adapt and thus prevent more extinction events.

In time, DNA extraction and genome mapping could become a boon. For now, such technology is a tool for better discoveries as we move towards a better tomorrow. Interestingly, the Carolina Parrot had an appetite for cockleburs. The common cocklebur is a plant that is toxic to animals…except for the Carolina Parakeet once upon a time. The consumption of the plant left the bird a toxic meal for predators. And yet, the native parakeet was immune. This same study provided the answer to the bird’s safe eating of the plant – two proteins that interacted with the poison to make the deadly plant safe.

Eventually, science might be able to create extraordinary avenues of protection from extinction, as well as the possible return of some desired creatures. Time will tell.

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