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National Geographic grant for C·I·B study on starlings

Dr Cécile Berthouly-Salazar

Dr Cécile Berthouly-Salazar, a postdoctoral fellow of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology (C·I·B) at Stellenbosch University, was awarded a National Geographic Research and Exploration grant to study the spatial genetic structure of invasive common starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in South Africa.

The National Geographic Society awards grants for scientific field research and exploration through its Committee for Research and Exploration. All proposed projects must have both a geographical dimension and relevance to other scientific fields and be of broad scientific interest.

Common starlings count among the most familiar of birds in the world, with their plumage of shiny black, glossed purple or green feathers dotted with white being very characteristic.

They are native to the temperate regions of Europe and Asia, but have over the years managed to spread to other parts of the world, such as South Africa, the United States, New Zealand and parts of Australia. In 77% of the cases their introduction has led to their successful introduction in their new host country and their subsequent invasion of the local bird population.

According to Dr Berthouly-Salazar, this success is most likely due to the common starling’s ability to tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions and its frequent association with human-transformed land.

In South Africa, the common starling was introduced to Cape Town in 1897, from where it gradually dispersed. It now occurs as far as the northern parts of the Northern Cape Province as parts of the Eastern Cape, and can dominate local bird populations.

“The processes responsible for the establishment and subsequent spread of introduced populations present a complex network of mechanistic interactions which can often only be teased apart by using multidisciplinary approaches,” says Dr Berthouly-Salazar. Included amongst these are the relative importance of various genetic parameters in promoting successful establishment and spread.

Dr Berthouly-Salazar intends to determine the spatial genetic structure of common starling in order to better understand dispersal and invasion mechanisms of the species in South Africa.

Her research entails multiple disciplines, some of which include landscape genetics where population genetic approaches are used in conjunction with environmental variables. Such integrative approaches may inform management decisions and help decipher factors that can be modified to expand or restrict the viability of populations.

Her spatial-invasive study is one of the first of its nature to be conducted on invasive birds.

“Results from this study will not only be useful for the management of starlings in South Africa, but could also be applied in others countries where this species is also considered invasive,” Dr Berthouly-Salazar believes.