[Yula Kapetanakos, Cornell Graduate Student] I’m sitting in a multi-million-dollar lab here at the Lab of Ornithology, but the most important things for me are right here in these envelopes: My feather samples. My name is Yula Kapetanakos and I study three critically-endangered species of vultures in Southeast Asia. If you see a vulture soaring in the skies, it’s one of the most beautiful sights that you can ever see. It’s taken millions of years for these animals to evolve, to perfect this ability to soar for hundreds of kilometers in a day. Vultures have been vilified because of their association with death and decay, and it’s actually ironic because vultures actually help keep the environment cleaner by preventing the spread of disease, by consuming animals after they’ve died. Vultures are extremely difficult to study. They can travel very long distances, their nests are usually very difficult to access, either high up in trees or on cliffs. Historically, people have relied on visual census counts, or by actually capturing and tagging the birds and re-releasing them. What we’re trying to do is to find new techniques in order to study the populations of these birds more effectively and more efficiently, by using the DNA that’s found in the tips of feathers. In this box are five months’ worth of samples collected in Cambodia in 2010. I spent the last three to four years collecting feathers from the field, and it’s now in this lab where I’m able to actually do the genetic analysis to determine how many individuals are within each of the populations in Southeast Asia. In order to isolate the DNA from each feather, I need to remove the tip, which is located in the skin, it’s embedded in the skin of the vulture, and then there’s a small little blood spot at the top which is formed as the feather is growing, and it’s also a great source of DNA. For this study we rely on the genetic fingerprint of each of the birds in order to identify to the species level and also to the individual level. So, just like our fingerprints, the sequence of DNA found in each one of these feather tips identifies a unique individual. To collect my feather samples there’s 7 field sites in Cambodia and every month between the months of January and May they place a dead cow in the middle of a field, and once the carcass is completely consumed, which can take all day, we’ll go out and we’ll collect whatever feathers the birds have left behind. Between the birds molting and preening themselves, as well as tussling about, we’ll end up with hundreds of feathers at each of the sites. This is the largest study of its kind in terms of using non-invasively collected feather samples from birds. In the past they maybe had success at capturing five to six birds in Cambodia at any one time; for us we can potentially capture the entire population within five months of sampling. Extracting DNA from feathers can be a little bit trickier than blood because the concentration of DNA is so much less. The technique that we’re using isn’t a new one, but after extracting DNA from thousands of feathers, we’re becoming pretty good at getting the most amount of DNA from a small feathertip as possible. Throughout their Old World range all nine species of vulture in Asia are in decline. The three species that are found in Cambodia, we think the populations there are stable, although we don’t have any real, good estimates on their population numbers. Through the genetic work that I’ve been doing in just a few sites we’ve identified between 100 to 150 birds, and this is before actually completing all the genetic analyses for 2009 for this one species, and this gives us some optimism that perhaps there are more birds within Cambodia than the visual censuses are actually finding. I’m hoping that the population estimates that are provided through the genetic non-invasive marker capture will allow the conservation managers to have a much better idea of how many birds are actually surviving from year to year. And one thing that I want to stress heavily is that any conservation effort cannot be done single-handedly, so although my role is to do the genetic work and to collect the feather samples in the field, much of the conservation effort relied heavily on collaborations with the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, as well as with Wildlife Conservation Society and with BirdLife International. It’s a partnership that together allows us to conserve these species in the long run. My research spans from lo-fi to very hi-fi. My feathers have flown over 8500 miles to get to this lab so that I can work to help conserve these species.

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Despite their grisly lifestyle, vultures play an important role in nature and are even important for protecting human health—but in southeast Asia several species are facing extinction from exposure to a drug used to treat livestock. Cornell graduate student Yula Kapetanakos tells us about her doctoral research on White-rumped Vultures in Cambodia. She extracts genetic samples from dropped feathers and uses them to determine how many vultures remain and how closely related they are. Since the birds naturally shed these feathers, her work doesn’t affect the birds at all; and since she is able to accurately identify individuals through their genetic fingerprints, her counts have revealed population levels that exceed those estimated with previous techniques—good news for an imperiled species.