Egg forensics: An appraisal of DNA sequencing to assist in species identification of illegally smuggled eggs
Coghlan, M.L., White, N.E., Parkinson, L., Haile, J., Spencer, P.B.S. and Bunce, M. (2012) Egg forensics: An appraisal of DNA sequencing to assist in species identification of illegally smuggled eggs. Forensic Science International: Genetics, 6 (2). pp. 268-273.
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Psittaciformes (parrots and cockatoos) are charismatic birds, their plumage and capacity for learning make them highly sought after pets. The illegal trade in parrots and cockatoos poses a serious threat to the viability of native populations; in addition, species transported to non-endemic areas may potentially vector disease and genetically 'pollute' local native avifauna. To reduce the logistical difficulties associated with trafficking live birds, smugglers often transport eggs. This creates a problem for authorities in elucidating accurate species identification without the laborious task of incubation and hand rearing until a morphological identification can be made. Here, we use 99 avian eggs seized from carriers coming into and within Australia, as a result of suspected illegal trade. We investigate and evaluate the use of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to accurately identify eggs to family, genus or species level. However, Identification of a species based on percentage mtDNA similarities is difficult without good representations of the inter- and intra-levels of species variation. Based on the available reference database, we were able to identify 52% of the eggs to species level. Of those, 10 species from eight genera were detected, all of which belong to the parrot (Psittacidae) and cockatoo (Cacatuidae) families. Of the remaining 48%, a further 36% of eggs were identified to genus level, and 12% identified to family level using our assignment criteria. Clearly the lack of validated DNA reference sequences is hindering our ability to accurately assign a species identity, and accordingly, we advocate that more attention needs to be paid to establishing validated, multi locus mtDNA reference databases for exotic birds that can both assist in genetic identifications and withstand legal scrutiny.
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