The Critically Endangered Orange-bellied Parrot, with a wild population as small as 70 birds, faces new threats after being found to carry previously undetected viruses.
New research, conducted by a team involving James Cook University Microbiologist and Senior Lecturer, Dr Subir Sarker, and published in Microbiology Spectrum, identified 11 viruses being harboured between 40 captive-bred Orange-bellied Parrots – with six of those viruses having not been discovered in the species before.
"From this study we identified a number of viral pathogens which we knew were already present in the Orange-bellied Parrot population, but there were also those six novel pathogens we discovered," Dr Sarker said.
Orange-bellied Parrot breeds only in Tasmania, with most of the population migrating to coastal Victoria and South Australia for winter (Josh Jones).
Australia's most endangered parrot
Dr Sarker used next-generation sequencing technology to detect for viomes, which encompass all viruses present, in faecal samples taken in 2021 from captive-bred parrots housed at Zoos Victoria. His team's analysis eventually identified 11 viruses belonging to the families Adenoviridae, Circoviridae, Parvoviridae and Picornaviridae.
Eight viruses were detected in Aviary 1 compared to only three viruses housed at Aviary 2.
"This parrot already faces numerous threats to its survival in the wild, including habitat loss, predation and small population impacts. Conservation of the wild Orange-bellied Parrot population is heavily reliant on using parrots from a managed captive-breeding programme," Dr Sarker added.
"It's now up to Zoos Victoria and conservation authorities, including the Orange-bellied Parrot National Recovery Team, to decide how they will manage this risk. This is an area that we need more focus and more research funding to understand and protect these iconic birds in Australia."
Orange-bellied Parrot has shown signs of recovery recently, including in 2022, 2021 and 2020, thanks to successful breeding seasons and a release of captive-bred birds. Read more about the species in our Birds on the Brink feature.
Klukowski, N, Eden, P, Uddin, M J, & Sarker, S. 2023. Virome of Australia's most endangered parrot in captivity evidenced of harboring hitherto unknown viruses. Microbiology Spectrum. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1128/spectrum.03052-23