Two populations of rock ptarmigan from opposite ends of North America are in danger of disappearing permanently if conservation and management practices aren't changed, says Biology Professor Bob Montgomerie.
His research team uses DNA analysis to show that both populations one in Newfoundland's highland ranges and the other in Alaska's Aleutian Island chain are genetically distinct from all other rock ptarmigan and should be considered separate species.
"Traditional classifications often fail to capture the diversity and evolutionary history of organisms below the level of species," Dr. Montgomerie explains. "If we consider these populations to be distinct species, they would deserve immediate preservation under the Species at Risk Act, changing management policy on both islands and hunting practices on Newfoundland."
Currently there are 19 "endangered" and seven "threatened" bird species in Canada. Three distinct bird species are known to have become extinct in North America since 1900.
The study will be published in an upcoming edition of the Canadian Journal of Zoology. Also on the team, from the Queen's Biology Department, are researchers Karen Holder and Vickie Friesen.
Although not endangered in other arctic regions, the rock ptarmigan populations identified in this study are definitely at risk, say the researchers. In the Aleutian Islands this is due to foxes that were introduced in the 18th century for fur farming, while in Newfoundland the birds are hunted by people as small game.
"Reclassification of these two populations should immediately move them into the 'species at risk' category, and thus afford them the protection they need," says Dr. Montgomerie.