Using DNA to help threatened species survive environmental change

  • Levi Collier-Robinson sampling kōwaro with students from Te Kura o Tuahiwi. Image - Ashley Overbeek

    Levi Collier-Robinson sampling kōwaro with students from Te Kura o Tuahiwi. Image - Ashley Overbeek

By focusing on five diverse species, this project contributes to the BioHeritage Challenge's Mission to enhance and restore Aotearoa New Zealand’s terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems.

Further, the project spans both natural and production sectors, with a special focus on increasing resilience of both threatened taonga and mahinga kai species to improve conservation, customary and commercial outcomes.

The integration across disciplines and sectors and across a broad range of taxa highlights the strong potential for scalability, and a clear commitment to implementation.

Finally, in partnership with Ngāi Tūāhuriri, the project is firmly anchored by mahinga kai values and Mātauranga Māori is embedded throughout.


Take/Initiation - It is critical that threatened species are managed in such a way that they are able to adapt to future environmental change. To do so, these species must harbour sufficient genetic variation at fitness-related loci under selection (adaptive variation).

Recent genomic advances promise to enable the characterisation of adaptive variation in threatened species, and there is growing interest in shifting focus away from maintaining the evolutionary distinctiveness of relatively small, isolated populations towards maximising the adaptive potential of relatively large, connected metapopulations to improve conservation outcomes.

There is also growing recognition in primary industry (e.g. agriculture, fisheries, forestry, horticulture) that embedding conservation genetic principles can lead to improved resilience, particularly for species that currently exist as a series of small, isolated populations.

We are developing and integrating a series of case studies where we combine emerging high-throughput generation sequencing technologies with extensive ecological and environmental data to characterise adaptive variation for representatives from Aotearoa New Zealand’s threatened terrestrial and freshwater biota.

We will then use these metadata to provide the first comprehensive assessment of the risks and benefits of prioritising adaptive potential to improve conservation outcomes for species at risk.

For two of these case studies, we will further demonstrate how conservation scientists and practitioners can work in partnership with mana whenua to build resilience in threatened taonga and mahinga kai species.

Ultimately, the project will provide a framework that New Zealand communities can use to work together to ensure our threatened species are more resilient to future environmental change.

Kaupapa/Formulation - We have identified two species of importance to Ngāi Tūāhuriri: the nationally critical taonga species, kōwaro/Canterbury mudfish (Neochanna burrowsius) and the declining mahinga kai species, kewai/freshwater crayfish (Paranephrops zealandicus).

Whereas kōwaro are currently being translocated within Ngāi Tūāhuriri’s rohe to enhance species recovery, translocations are being considered for kewai to enable sustainable customary and commercial harvest.

Whakatinana and Whakamana o Whanaungatanga/Implementation - During informal and formal knowledge sharing opportunities, we will further our understanding of the mauri of kōwaro and kewai, including past, current and future distributions in Ngāi Tūāhuriri’s rohe, and incorporate relevant traditional ecological knowledge and mātauranga Māori in our study design.

To increase taxonomic, ecological and genomic breadth, we will leverage ongoing projects to characterise adaptive variation in hihi/stitchbird (Notiomystis cincta), kākā/brown parrot (Nestor meridionalis) and wētāpunga/giant wētā (Deinacrida spp).

For all species, population viability analysis modelling will contribute to an assessment of the risks and benefits of prioritising adaptive potential to improve conservation outcomes.

Arotake/Evaluation - Our aim is to develop an understanding of the importance of adaptive variation in enhancing species resilience in five taxonomically diverse species.

Integrating our findings across other species for which population genomic datasets are being generated, at both national and international level, will enable us to develop an evidence-based position statement that assesses the risks and benefits of prioritising adaptive variation in the management of threatened species.

Key to this aspect of the project will be the opportunity for genomic data to inform translocation activities within Ngāi Tūāhuriri’s rohe, and if applicable, between Ngāi Tūāhuriri’s rohe and rohe elsewhere in the South Island, and to contribute to a rigorous assessment of the short-term fitness outcomes of these activities.

Whakapaiaki/Review - In the long-term, as empirical data accumulates, we anticipate our culturally-informed, evidence-based position statement will become the touchstone for the development of best practice metapopulation management guidelines for building resilience in threatened taonga species, including mahinga kai species destined for sustainable customary or commercial harvest.

  • Characterise adaptive variation in a broad range of freshwater and terrestrial Aotearoa New Zealand biota and evaluate resilience to future environmental change conferred by such variation.
  • Develop a culturally-responsive, evidence-based position statement regarding the benefits and risks of prioritising adaptive variation in threatened taonga species to enhance conservation, customary and commercial resilience.

We're combining emerging next-generation sequencing technologies with extensive ecological and environmental data to characterise adaptive variation.

For each species, the impact of genetic, environmental and ecological factors on population and species long term survival will be assessed in a population viability analysis framework. In particular, the impact of preserving adaptive versus neutral genetic variation on metapopulation viability will be explored by simulating a range of links between genetic variation and fitness.

For each species, these simulations will also assess the degree to which environmental and ecological factors, such as the variability of the environment or the generation time of the species, are also important in predicting species persistence, in addition to adaptive or neutral genetic variation.

The development of the culturally-responsive, evidence-based position statement will be enabled by regular meetings, hui and workshops with the research team, project partner and project collaborators.

Beyond the 10-year and 3-year outcomes described below, we expect the most  tangible Vision Mātauranga outcome will be the uptake of our evidence-based, culturally-responsive position  statement (3-year outcome) and guidelines (10-year outcome) to advance iwi-, rūnanga-, or hapu-led initiatives for the sustainable customary or commercial harvest of mahinga kai species.

10-year outcome

By Year 10, we expect that genomic data will be  routinely used to enhance the resilience of threatened species through the  active management of adaptive variation in the conservation and customary and  commercial sectors, particularly for mahinga kai species. This management will  be informed by meaningful, engaged relationships among genomic scientists, the  Department of Conservation (DOC), relevant mana whenua and local community  restoration groups including iwi trusts, and will be supported by  culturally-responsive, evidence-based guidelines developed by us.

3-year outcome

By  Year 3, we will combine genomic, ecological and environmental data to;

  1. characterise adaptive variation in five focal species (2 terrestrial birds, 1  terrestrial invertebrate, 1 freshwater fish, 1 freshwater invertebrate),
  2. inform conservation management strategies for the five focal species developed  in collaboration with the Department of Conservation (DOC), relevant mana  whenua and local community restoration groups including iwi trusts,
  3. develop a culturally-responsive, evidence-based position statement regarding  the use of adaptive variation to enhance the resilience of threatened taonga  species, and
  4. provide an exemplar of  how conservation scientists and practitioners can work in partnership with mana  whenua to build resilience in threatened taonga species.

The Project Team has a strong track-record of conducting collaborative interdisciplinary research that is responsive to diverse end-user needs including Department of Conservation recovery groups (e.g. hihi, threatened wētā) and local restoration trusts (e.g. Project Janszoon). The team is lead by Tammy Steeves, University of Canterbury in partnership with Ngāi Tūāhuriri.

Key Researchers

Anna Santure, University of Auckland

Michael Knapp, University of Otago

Angus McIntosh, University of Canterbury

Thomas Buckley, Manaaki Whenua / University of Auckland

Adaptive Potential

Adaptive potential is relatively easy to define but difficult to measure. Simply put, it represents the capacity of a population to evolve (adapt) in response to environmental change. All else being equal, populations that harbour more genetic variation at the loci underlying relevant fitness-related traits have higher adaptive potential, or a higher probability of persistence, than those that harbour less genetic variation at the same loci. Given the inherent challenges of characterising such loci, adaptive potential is rarely measured directly.

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Levi Collier-Robinson sampling kōwaro with students from Te Kura o Tuahiwi. Image - Ashley Overbeek
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