Clues to Conserving the Golden Eagle Hidden in Its DNA

Sequencing the raptor’s genome reveals new insights into protecting it from wind turbines and other threats.

Each year, wind turbines kill roughly half a million birds, and the death toll could climb to more than a million by 2030. To curb the carnage, for eagles in particular, one proposal has been to apply ultraviolet-reflective paint to blades to make them more visible to birds. Turns out, it’s a strategy that likely wouldn’t help golden eagles: The birds aren’t sensitive to ultraviolet light, scientists recently discovered when they sequenced the species’ genome.

"Having the golden eagle genome in hand could directly affect the way we make conservation and management decisions," says Jacqueline Doyle, postdoctoral research associate at Purdue University and the first author of the study, published in PLOS ONE.

The research also suggests that golden eagles may have a very sharp sense of smell, indicating that the birds may rely more heavily on the sense to locate prey than long believed. Meanwhile, the genetic markers can also help scientists track the evolution of different families of genes and identify potential golden eagle pathogens, parasites, and symbiotic organisms, says J. Andrew DeWoody, study co-author and geneticist at Purdue University.

DeWoody and colleagues took the blood sample for the sequencing project from a golden eagle they captured with a spring-loaded net in California. While they had the magnificent bird in hand, they also attached a GPS tracking device, making it possibly the first wild bird to have its genome sequenced and be tracked at the same time, DeWoody says.

The bird is part of a large ongoing tracking project that includes 25 golden eagles. In addition to the genetic work, researchers are trying to understand how the raptors respond to different terrain and vegetative cover in order to get a sense of how the birds might react to the development of wind turbines in those areas.

The golden eagle joins the zebra finch, budgerigar, and chicken in the small, but growing list of birds whose genomes have been sequenced. To date, most birds whose genomes have been sequenced have been species used for basic research; the zebra finch, for example, is studied in part because learning song has close similarities to acquiring human speech.

The decreasing cost of genome sequencing is opening the door to conservationists. “Now we can sequence the genome of a species of some conservation concern” rapidly and relatively cheaply, says Doyle says.

And like the golden eagle, the secret of what will and won’t work when it comes to conserving the world around us may be in the genes. Given the dire straights so many avian species face, a new tool that could help uncover clues to safeguarding birds is just what the doctor ordered.