To fly or not to fly?

Dr Gillian Gibb has $300,000 to study why some birds take to the skies, while others decide to go to ground.

While some of our native birds are masters of the sky, others – like the kiwi – remain earthbound. While we know the physical qualities that cause flightlessness, the genetic markers are yet to be mapped.

Dr Gillian Gibb, of the Institute of Agriculture and Environment, has been given $300,000 from the Royal Society's Marsden Fund, to study the genetic pathways to flightlessness in native New Zealand birds. Her study will examine the genetic differences between flighted and flightless birds from the ground-living rail family. The flightless weka will be compared to the flighted buff-banded rail, and the flightless takahe to the pukeko.

Dr Gibb explains that while many of us would be dismayed to lose the ability to fly if we’d formerly been able to, for birds it’s a matter of survival. “It all comes down to energy expenditure and flying takes a whole lot of energy. If a bird can get what it needs from the ground, then why retain something that will simply burn more precious energy?

“The physical differences between birds that can fly and those that cannot are well documented, as well as the ecological conditions that dictate the change, but the genetic pathways that led to this evolutionary shift are what we’re interested in – it’s not the ‘how’, it’s the ‘why’ at a genetic level.”

The research is made possible by emerging molecular tools that allow the investigation of the underlying genetic mechanisms and pathways of bird DNA.

She will also investigate what order, timing and degree of variability there is in the combination of genes operating in different birds. The research hopes to enhance the understanding of many important genetic pathways for birds, including limb development, reproductive capacity, immunology and metabolism.

The work will be supported by a notable expert on rails, Professor Steve Trewick of the Institute of Agriculture and Environment.

Dr Gibb is one of seven Massey University projects to share in $3.1 million from the fund. A total 117 projects were granted more than $65 million in Government funding by the Marsden Fund, managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand on behalf of the Government.