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Scientists hope bird migration maps will help protect threatened species

An image of a Wilson's Warbler.
Stock photo by Michael Woodruff via Flickr Creative Commons
An image of a Wilson's Warbler. A new project from UCLA aims to use genetic information to help map the migration patterns of birds such as the Warbler so conservationists can do more to protect threatened species.

A recent study found that half of California's bird species are threatened by climate change, and many populations are already in decline.

Scientists are looking for ways to help protect these animals, but that can be hard since many birds spend half the year traveling.

"We can't even begin to understand how the various factors come into play to cause the declines we are seeing," said Kristen Ruegg, a research biologist with UCLA. 

As part of a new research effort called the UCLA Bird Genoscape Project, announced Wednesday, Ruegg and a team of researchers will create maps showing where specific sub-populations of birds go as they migrate.

They started with the Wilson's Warbler, a song bird found in various parts of North America.

They used a new method of genome analysis to identify signature traits of various sub-groups of Wilson's warblers.

They then took DNA samples of various warblers across North America and used that to trace each bird back to its home population.

Ruegg says this data helped them find out the travel patterns of specific groups, like the warblers from the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

"Now we’re able to say it looks like it uses solely the Pacific Flyway and it winters in western Mexico," she explained.

(The map shows the migratory range of various sub-group populations of the Wilson's Warbler. Click for a larger image. Credit: Kristen Ruegg/UCLA)

Ruegg and her team plan to make similar maps for more species in hopes of identifying what habitats are most important for migration. 

Conservationists can then focus on protecting those crucial areas.