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First steps toward blue-throated macaw reintroduction: Genetic and habitat availability

BTMThe blue-throated macaw (Ara glaucogularis) is a critically endangered macaw endemic of Bolivia. At present, fewer than 150 individuals exist in the wild, which presents one of primary limits to reproduction and population growth. In 2013, after approval from the Bolivian government, the first 6 (of 60) captive individuals were moved from the United Kingdom to Bolivia in order to establish the first Captive Breeding and Release Center for the species in its natural habitat. Essential aspects of this effort are to carefully choose the individuals to be released, the breeding pairs, and the potential release sites. Understanding the population genetics of the species, and specifically relatedness among individuals, is critical in order to avoid inbreeding and maximize genetic diversity. Knowing the genetic diversity and structure of existing wild populations also will allow assignment of captive individuals to the best release sites. Meanwhile, the selection of release sites must take into account not only genetic information and habitat availability (foraging, nesting and resting sites), but also ongoing threats, in order to ensure the survival of released individuals.

The general objective of this project was to select the best candidates to be released and to identify and rank potential release sites. Specific objectives included determining the genetic variability in wild and captive individuals of the blue-throated macaw; identifying potential release sites, based on the quality of available habitat and current threats; and, developing a map of priority sites and candidate birds to be released at each site. Unfortunately, samples were limited from captive birds; however, researchers were able to determine genetic variability within the wild population and genotype individuals for a series of genetic markers. Field data on habitat quality and current threats were also used to generate detailed predictions of blue-throated macaw geographic distributions. Based on a map of potential available sites, the team selected two sets of five candidate sites each: one set for reintroduction (no macaws currently present) and another group for reinforcement (macaws already present). These results are being used as the foundation for the blue-throated macaw recovery effort. The World Parrot Trust (WPT), which also supported this research, is leading the Blue-throated Macaw (BTM) Conservation Project, and the project’s results are being directly incorporated into the BTM Conservation Project’s Release Program. ($8,000)