Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs 519 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

February 19, 2007

New Bird, Bat Species Discovered Using DNA Barcoding

Learn More, See the Bats and Birds

Building on earlier groundbreaking research, University of Guelph researchers now provide evidence of 15 overlooked species of North American birds and six new species of bats using DNA barcoding, a technique that identifies living things by genetics rather than appearance.

The findings of Elizabeth Clare, Kevin Kerr and Paul Hebert, all of the Department of Integrative Biology, and researchers from Rockefeller University, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Smithsonian Institution and the Royal Ontario Museum were published today in two separate studies in the journal Molecular Ecology Notes.

For the bird study, Hebert and his colleagues examined 643 species — 93 per cent of the known breeding species in the United States and Canada. In addition to discovering 15 new species, they found 14 pairs of North American bird species with separate identities that are, in fact, DNA twins. They also found three DNA triplets and eight gull species that are virtually identical. In all, 2,500 specimens were examined.

“Now with the vast majority of birds on the continent barcoded, it’s hard to argue that barcoding might work for the easy stuff but miss the difficult cases of closely related taxa,” said Hebert.

For the bat study, the researchers analyzed 87 species from Guyana, discovering six new species. It was a surprisingly high percentage, given that the bats of the South American country have been subjected to intensive taxonomic work, Hebert said.

“We wanted to give barcoding the toughest possible test. In doing so, we discovered a number of overlooked bats.” Among the new species is a bat that feasts on frogs and looks identical to charismatically unattractive Trachops cirrhosus.

Hebert, who is director of the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, was the first scientist to propose that a short DNA sequence from a gene found in all animals can be used to identify species. He called the system “DNA barcoding,” analogous to how retail products are tagged in supermarkets to allow quick identification of millions of items.

One advantage is that barcoding can identify species from bits and pieces. Hebert and the other scientists hope to eventually establish a public reference library that includes DNA barcodes of known and newly discovered plants and animal species, as well as a public online database of DNA bar-code sequences.

“Our job is to reveal how many species there are on the planet and provide really simple tools to tell one species from another,” he said.

So far, the Barcode of Life Data System has catalogued more than 25,000 species of all types. When fully established, the database will help quickly identify undesirable animal or plant material in food; detect regulated species in the marketplace; help reconstruct food cycles by identifying fragments in stomachs; and assist plant science by identifying roots from soil layers.

“What it will effectively mean is that researchers will find a barcode linked to just about anything encountered anywhere on the planet,” Hebert said.

Paul Hebert
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 56250

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Rachelle Cooper, Ext. 56982.

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