Scientists and conservationists say they have identified a ‘new’ species of tern. The Royal Tern was previously thought to have two subspecies – maximus (found in the Americas) and albididorsalis (in parts of West Africa). But wildlife conservation teams in The Gambia have long-suspected that the West African birds were distinct, and now scientists at the University of Aberdeen have used DNA analysis to show that they are two distinct species.
The discovery could have immediate conservation consequences for the West African Royal Tern, since its breeding grounds are under threat from climate change and human activity. The research will be presented to international conservation authorities in a bid to have its conservation status re-evaluated.
Scientists at the University of Aberdeen, together with colleagues from the Universities of Montpellier and Hull, The Department of Wildlife and ornithologist Clive Barlow in The Gambia, made the discovery by analysing DNA sequences of feathers and other remains of West African Royal Terns from Mauritania and from islands off the Tanji Bird Reserve in The Gambia. It is the first time anyone has ever sequenced the DNA of the West African Royal Tern. That process allows them to compare a bird’s DNA sequence with every other bird that has been studied in this way using online tools with software able to establish a bird’s closest matches.
The study, published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, revealed the West African Royal Tern’s nearest relative was not the American variant, but the Lesser Crested Tern – which is a smaller tern with a more yellowish-orange bill.
‘West African and American Royal Terns have long been considered the same species,’ explained Prof. Martin Collinson from the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Medical Sciences. ‘They look pretty much identical to each other except the American Royal Tern is on average slightly bigger with a slightly redder bill.
‘This research should have an impact on the West African Royal Tern’s conservation status. The breeding grounds in The Gambia and Senegal have been massively eroded by storms and the encroaching human population, so the West African Royal Tern is under threat. Conservationists in The Gambia can now take this information to their Government and potential donors, and call for help to protect this West African endemic species.
‘It’s information that can inform conservation priorities. There is a limited pot of money and information such as this helps determine where it should be allocated. It is important to direct conservation funds to preserve the maximum amount of genetic variation and genetic biodiversity, in addition to understanding the inherent societal, cultural and economic importance of the birds themselves.’