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Project Song Gene Update, Southern Africa Sep 2022 - Jan 2023!

Matteo Sebastianelli and I, along with six other members of the Behavioural Ecology and Evolution Lab - Simona Secomandi, Sam Jones, Stacey de Souza, Nathalie Boutros, Michaella Moysi and Christos Nikiforou, embarked on a field expedition to South Africa and Eswatini as part of the Research and Innovation Foundation (RIF) funded project "Song Gene" in September 2022. Fieldwork began in the Seringveld Conservancy – from our base at Goodland Estate – where a polymorphic population of Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird (Pogoniulus chrysoconus extoni) can be found.

Photo: Forecrown colour polymorphism in Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird in Seringveld Conservancy, Gauteng

Our objectives for the trip were to record previously ringed birds, ring further individuals, and collect samples from several sites in South Africa and Eswatini.

Photo: Michaella and Stacey processing a bird

During our first week in Seringveld Conservancy, we were also joined by project collaborator, Professor Michelle Greve from the University of Pretoria, who shared knowledge on vegetation surveys and habitat quantification – key techniques for our landscape genomics project.

Photo: Michelle Greve leading the team in DeTweedespruit Conservancy

Following our stay in Goodland, four members of the team travelled back to Cyprus while the rest of the team went on to KwaZulu Natal to collect samples from an allopatric Red-fronted Tinkerbird (Pogoniulus pusillus pusillus) population at Tala Game Reserve near Pietermaritzburg. We also visited our collaborators Professors Colleen Downs and Sandi Willows-Munro at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. We then stopped at Kube Yini Private Game Reserve for three days to ring, collect samples, and record ringed birds.

Photo: Simona with the rest of the team that went on to KwaZulu-Natal

We then travelled to Tshaneni in Eswatini for a couple of days and then Sam and Simona travelled back to Cyprus, while Stacey and I returned to Kube Yini for more fieldwork, before returning to Goodland.

I then returned to the contact zone in Eswatini to record ringed birds and collect samples for transcriptomics. We needed to focus on hybrid individuals, which we identified in the hand by looking for combinations of features such as a white supercilium, orange forecrown and patchy wing bars compared to the uniform gold wing panels seen in typical Red-fronted Tinkerbirds.

Photo: A hybrid!

The search for hybrids took nineteen days. Afterwards, Alex joined me and we travelled to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to attend the Pan-African Ornithological Congress (PAOC 15). We then returned to Pretoria and spent a further week in the field in Seringveld and DeTweedespruit conservancies ringing, recording ringed birds and collecting samples.

Photo: Alex looking for colour-ringed birds in Seringveld Conservancy

After the Christmas break, I travelled to Mawewe Game Reserve and Cattle Ranch in Mpumalanga, to where the contact zone between Yellow and Red-fronted Tinkerbirds extends to. I spent six nights here collecting samples for transcriptomics. After spending four months in Southern Africa, I finally returned to Cyprus to join the rest of the team in late January 2023.

All in all, a successful trip in which we collected a comprehensive set of data for the Song Gene project, including feathers and samples to investigate the genomic architecture of carotenoid-based plumage colouration, repeat song recordings from individuals to assess song stability across the tinkerbird hybrid zone and in allopatry, and samples for transcriptomics.

Sifiso Lukhele

8 Feb 2023


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