Genetic structure of birds in the Albertine Rift of Africa and implications for conservation and climate change

2012 REU Intern Daniel Montgomery


Junior Biology major at Indiana State University

REU Mentors: Dr. John Bates (Curator, Zoology, Birds), Josh Engel (Research Assistant, Zoology, Birds)

Symposium Presentation Title: Genetic Structure of Phyllastrephus fischeri in the Albertine Rift

Symposium Presentation Abstract: The Albertine Rift comprises a chain of highlands stretching 1000km from north to south in East Africa. Many of the forested highland regions are isolated due to the geologic activity of the Rift. We set out to learn if the birds in these highlands have become genetically isolated. In order to asses this question, we sequenced two mitochondrial genes of 45 individuals of Phyllastrephus fischeri from various highland forests across the region. The results show two distinct geographic clades, one widespread clade and one limited to the Mt. Kabogo highlands in the south. Our original prediction that birds would show genetic isolation within the Albertine Rift was accurate. This research is important not only to further our understanding of evolution in the region, but also to help set conservation priorities in a region with limited conservation resources. Further research can look into other birds’ genetic structure in the Albertine Rift. If more birds from the Mt. Kabogo region are shown to be genetically distinct, it will highlight the importance of these forests for the conservation of genetic diversity.

Original Project Description: The Albertine Rift, a long chain of highlands that runs through the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and western Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, is considered to be one of the most critical biodiversity hotspots in Africa.  Using samples that have been collected through long-term field work in the region, we are gathering DNA sequence data on the genetic structure of endemic birds to understand what structure exists and to study what that structure tells us about how these species will respond to changing climates in the region.  Our research includes isolating and sequencing DNA from 100 year-old museum specimens to compare with modern samples to assess if genetic structure has been altered over this short evolutionary period.  The documentation of genetic structure  in these birds will provide valuable data to guide long-term conservation planning in the region.

Research methods and techniques: Interns will receive training in DNA extraction, PCR, and sequencing in the Museum’s core genetics facility, the Pritzker Laboratory and the DNA Discovery Center. Interns also will learn the basics of sequence data and phylogeographic analyses.