First-ever release of mixed gene Helmeted Honeyeaters into wild

Helmeted Honeyeater
The Helmeted Honeyeater, named for its ‘helmet’ of head feathers, is a much-loved State emblem found only in a small region of the State of Victoria. Credit: Andrew Silcocks.

In an exciting first for the species, 37 out-crossed Helmeted Honeyeaters were released to Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the recovery program to save the species.

In careful trials of gene pool mixing, Zoos Victoria bred Helmeted Honeyeaters at Healesville Sanctuary with their closest relative, the Yellow-tufted Honeyeater.

Gene-pool mixing involves breeding individuals that are relatively unrelated to improve genetic diversity. The “out-crossed” birds were bred to try to overcome the harmful effects of inbreeding occurring in the wild Helmeted Honeyeater population.

“Over the 30 years of the recovery program, information and genetic samples were collected that now allow us to understand the harmful effects of inbreeding that could possibly be resolved using gene pool mixing,” said Monash University’s Paul Sunnucks, who led the genetic aspects of the trial with Zoos Victoria. “Gene pool mixing could help overcome the burden of inbreeding depression and bolster an enduring recovery of the Helmeted Honeyeater.”

Healesville Sanctuary’s Life Sciences Manager, Conservation & Research, Kim Miller, said the mixing of the two subspecies in captivity had been going very well, with no signs of genetic or other problems.

“Over the last 30 years, thanks to the recovery program, the wild population has flourished from around 50 to about 230 today,” Dr Miller said. “It’s exciting to be involved in this important work fighting extinction.”

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning’s Senior Ornithologist, Bruce Quin, has worked on the recovery program for 26 of the 30 years, and says he is still learning more about the birds each day.

“It takes a team of people to keep this population alive and key to this is habitat restoration and supplementary feeding stations that have been essential to the ongoing recovery efforts.”

Once common across Victoria, Helmeted Honeyeaters are now only found in a single location, 661 hectares of land in Yellingbo, just 50 minutes from Melbourne’s CBD. The recovery team has concentrated much of its work on re-establishing the habitat at Yellingbo for the bird, to grow it in size and scale.

“The birds and their population will continue to be monitored, to measure the success of the recovery actions in sustaining Helmeted Honeyeaters after genetic rescue is added to the mix,” Professor Sunnucks said. “If all goes well, the genetic problems of the population will be alleviated, and there will be sufficient birds to consider establishing additional populations.”

The Helmeted Honeyeater Recovery Team is a voluntary collaboration of conservation organisations. The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Parks Victoria, Port Phillip and Westernport CMA, La Trobe University, Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater and Zoos Victoria are working together to save this precious native bird from extinction.<

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