The cultural heritage of the birds of Cyprus

The island of Cyprus emerged from the Mediterranean Sea some 15 million years ago. Gradually the island became vegetated and inhabited by a variety of animals including birds. Following isolation from continental populations, these birds evolved, accumulating mutations that made them distinct. Some have been recognised as distinct enough in their plumage to be described as separate species, such as the Cyprus Warbler and the Cyprus Wheatear. But divergence among species is not always manifested in morphological differences, and even when such differences are described, they are not necessarily adequate to characterise a species as distinct.

Advances in the biological sciences have allowed us to answer these questions by comparing entire genomes of organisms. By comparing whole genomes of birds breeding in Cyprus with those of their continental counterparts, we aim to reconstruct their demographic history. In this way, we can estimate the period that founder populations of local breeding species have arrived on the island. We complement these genomic data with analyses of morphology and song, concluding with quantified genomic and phenotypic differences denoting species uniqueness.

To that end, we focus on a subset of 20 bird species breeding on the island (Fig. 1) either as permanent residents or migrant breeders. We include all presently recognised endemic species and subspecies for Cyprus as well as other species for which we have preliminary data on potential distinctiveness from mainland populations, and species already considered taxonomically distinct on other Mediterranean islands. We utilise existing morphometric measurements collected through ringing efforts, and complement them with measurements obtained from birds ringed in the field and from museum specimens. Song differences are identified through field-collected recordings, and from online repositories. Genomic analyses will involve resequencing whole genomes of approximately 120 individuals at a depth of 10X, and mapping them to existing reference genomes of the same or congeneric species available from the “Bird 10,000 genomes” project. By utilising whole genomes, we will be using orders of magnitude more markers compared to previous work on birds in Cyprus, thus providing a more conclusive delineation of species differences between the island and continental populations.

Apart from the purely scientific interest of this work, our study will have a conservation impact, by stimulating authorities to take measures to protect endemic taxa. Furthermore, we aim to make a cultural impact by reverting the negative image of Cyprus as an island where millions of birds are slaughtered to one of a place with birds that have become distinct over time. Consequently, identifying the uniqueness of the birds breeding in Cyprus, we aim to attract bird related tourism, which helps to diversify the tourism product and brings tourists to the island both to places less visited and during periods of the year with lower demand, supporting local communities in those areas.

Figure 1: Target species (Photos Thomas Hadjikyriakou - Scops owl Stavros Christodoulides)