MSc biological sciences student, Dilini Abeyrama, receives an Alberta Innovates (Tech Futures) award of $26k for one year to study the Atlantic and Indian yellow-nosed albatrosses.

As their names suggest, the Atlantic and Indian yellow-nosed albatrosses are found in two different ocean basins-the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The two species have a lot of similarities, including breeding on a limited number of remote, oceanic islands, large at-sea distributions, epic voyages across the ocean. The two species are hard to differentiate based on appearances as they have few subtle morphological differences. Both species are listed as endangered due to their limited number of breeding sites, and threats from introduced diseases and predators and fishing mortality.

Abeyrama and her grad studies supervisor, biological sciences professor, Dr. Theresa Burg, will use genetic markers to assess levels of diversity within these two endangered species. They seek to determine if they can use these markers to help identify what species, and hopefully the island of origin, are being killed in fisheries.

They have 354 blood samples from four breeding islands and samples from two bycatch locations (Atlantic: Nightingale, Inaccessible and Gough; Indian: Amsterdam, and bycatches from South Africa and New Zealand). Preliminary data show differences between the two species meaning they can use these genetic markers to identify the species killed in fisheries; birds are often in poor condition and hard to detect by appearance alone. More importantly, their results suggest that there might be genetic differences between some of the islands!

They are starting genomics work to look at a larger number of markers in an attempt to get higher resolution in the hopes of determining which breeding populations the birds killed in fisheries came from. This will provide invaluable information allowing for the development of more detailed conservation and management plans for these two endangered species. It will also enable them to potentially determine where birds from each breeding colony are dispersing to during the non-breeding season using non-conventional methods, namely using bycatch samples from birds accidentally killed by fisheries to track the at-sea distribution of seabirds.

To ensure that Alberta’s universities and companies can recruit top talent, Alberta Innovates funds scholarships for graduate students conducting full-time research in key emerging technologies.

Dilini Abeyrama |
Dr. Theresa Burg, Department of Biological Sciences |