Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch

Our Projects

Operation Idiopathic Decline
OID Group

Three years ago I sat in a motel room in Sweetwater with a team of 10 scientists from Texas A&M, Texas A&M – Kingsville, Texas Tech University, and the University of North Texas.  We had been given a charge from Rick Snipes, President of the Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation.  Our charge was to design and conduct a comprehensive scientific investigation into disease (in the broadest context) as a possible explanation for the decline of bobwhites in the Rolling Plains.  Over the next 24 hours, we pondered pathogens and parasites, and the procedures and collaborations that would be necessary to pull it off.  The Board of RPQRF had approved $2 million dollar for this new endeavor.  Like the starship Enterprise we were about to boldly go where no man had gone before, on a scale as large as the Rolling Plains.Over the next three years, “Phase 1 of OID” was a logistical triumph.  Six trapping teams went forth from Big Lake (TX) to Buffalo (OK) and 33 other sites in between.  Each team spent 2.5 days on each of six ranches (or Wildlife Management Areas in Oklahoma’s case)The logistics of the trapping and sampling, then couriering the samples within 24 hours to the “Central Receiving Laboratory on the grounds of the Texas Institute for Environmental and Human Health (TIEHH) at Texas Tech took late hours, red eyes, and thousands of miles.  The tally of birds sampled included:

2011 – Bobs = 593, Blues = 0

2012 – Bobs = 647, Blues = 214

2013 – Bobs = 946, Blues = 215

for a total of 2,615 quail.  We are indebted to the many landowners who granted us trespass rights for trapping.  Their contribution was notable considering how low quail abundance was in most areas.

Once the samples arrived in Lubbock, Dr. Steve Presley’s team catalogued each specimen, dissected various samples, and shipped them to collaborating scientists.  Bacteria, viruses, parasites, pesticides, and contaminants were evaluated in various labs (these results are still underway).  In those labs post-docs and grad students used the latest techniques in molecular biology as well as old-fashioned necropsies, and critical thinking skills that would make CSI Miami jealous.

As data from the initial studies trickles in, it appears that viruses and bacteria don’t offer a smoking gun (but remember the study period was characterized by drought; might different results have been observed in an El Nino weather pattern?).  Various pesticides and contaminants have been found in low levels but probably don’t constitute a direct cause for concern (they may be causing secondary effects however).  Several new species of bacteria have been discovered, including several that show resistance to various antibiotics (I’m intrigued by this finding, and what the source of the antibiotic resistant bacteria may be).  From the first year, much of concern has focused on parasites, especially eyeworms, cecal worms, and coccidia.   Enter Phase 2.

Phase 2 consisted of three new studies to be conducted at TIEHH at an additional cost of $550,000.  These experiments were to study if/how eyeworms impact a quail’s ability to forage or escape predators.  As part of this project, it was found that eyeworms were often found in the nasal sinuses and other related glands around the eyes, and that they were blood=suckers.  This finding upped the ante considerably.  Another study would use “DNA fingerprinting” to screen various insects (potential intermediate hosts) for the eyeworm’s DNA.  Initially we thought small cockroaches  were the primary intermediate host, but this study is finding other species of arthropods are likely as equal or perhaps more important as the intermediate hosts.

Armed with the new information about eyeworms (i.e., their abundance in the nasal sinuses) one Phase 3 project was funded for an additional $725,000 with the primary objective to devise and test control alternatives (e.g., a medicated feed) as a means of controlling eyeworms and cecal worms, then determine if such treatments could increase survival and/or reproduction when applied to quail in the field.  The lab and field portion of these studies is scheduled to begin this summer.

Three years and $3.3 million and counting.  Where will this research take us?  Will it prove to be a good investment of such a large amount of our funds?  Can we develop a medicated feed, administer it, and see tangible results as they did with red grouse in the United Kingdom?  Only time will tell — stay tuned.

Operation Transfusion

Northern bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) populations have been declining for decades, but the rate and extent of such  declines have been especially disconcerting to landowners, biologists and quail hunters in the Rolling Plains.   Certainly the decline of bobwhites in one of its historical strongholds (i.e., Rolling Plains) has been both recent (since 2006) and abrupt (TPWD, Fig. 1).   Conventional hypotheses (e.g., habitat fragmentation) may explain such declines in some regions (e.g., Pineywoods, Cross Timbers) but do not appear to be plausible for larger ranches in this area (e.g., Shackelford County).   We propose that habitat per seis not a major factor in the observed quail declines in this area.Some have tried restocking bobwhites using pen-reared bobwhites, but such efforts have invariably failed because of low survival rates.  Conversely, translocation of wild-trapped bobwhites has been effective at revitalizing bobwhite populations in Georgia.Bobwhite translocation has not been researched well in west Texas.  Previous research in more eastern areas of the bobwhite’s range has yielded contrasting results. Scott et al. (2012) concluded that translocation in the Post Oak ecoregion of Texas was unsuccessful in restoring bobwhite populations in low-density fragmented areas because relative abundance of bobwhites remained low post-translocation.  Conversely, recent studies in Georgia documented site fidelity, high survival, reproductive success, and population response from bobwhites translocated into large areas of well managed habitat.  These successes prompted the implementation of an official wild quail translocation policy by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in 2006. This policy has permitted 5 translocation projects so far, which resulted in the translocation of 945 bobwhites and establishment of 8,680 ha of new wild quail population centers.  Fall covey call counts for completed projects showed an increase in fall densities from <0.5 birds/ha to >1.25 birds/ha.We propose to examine the success of translocating wild-trapped bobwhites to well managed, large (>3,000 ha) ranches in the Rolling Plains that have only recently (past 7 years) experienced low-density bobwhite populations. This research could provide insight into possible methods for jump-starting bobwhite populations, which may lead to restoring bobwhites to their historic numbers and range in North Texas.

The Bobwhite Genome Project

Over the past 30 years bobwhite populations have experienced a sharp decline over most of their geographic range, leaving many biologists to ponder the precise origins for what has since been described as “idiopathic decline.” Amidst these regional declines there are isolated pockets where bobwhite populations have fared better than the regional trend, despite similar weather, habitat, and management strategies.  Might there be genetic differences among these “survivors” that provide some adaptation (e.g., disease resistance)?

For these reasons, we sequenced the bobwhite quail genome using the most cutting-edge technologies, thereby producing billions of sequencing reads derived from multiple sequencing libraries. Thereafter, we assembled the complete genome without a reference sequence (i.e. de novo; > 1.17 billion bases), thus eliminating significant bias created by using a reference-assisted approach, and performed detailed comparative genome analyses with several other avian species.

This research effort was directed by Dr. Chris Seabury at the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University along with graduate research assistant Yvette Halley.  Funding was provided by Rolling Plains Quail Research Foundation and Joe Crafton.

The genetic information gathered from BGP is enabling us to learn more about why certain lineages of quail, or local populations, are more robust and resistant to disease, or other environmental factors.  Genetic differences may play a role in disease susceptibility or the ability to withstand other challenging environmental factors.”

Below are some sound bites from Dr. Seabury as to the relevance of the discovery:

“Our study is important because prior to this, we had no ability to use whole-genome technologies to monitor levels of genetic diversity over time, define the genetic relationships among existing populations, or draw important inferences regarding bobwhite physiological interactions with their environment,” Seabury explains.

“We now have a formal resource for studying the bird and identifying new or perhaps even more specific reasons for its serious decline. This resource gives us a way to look at new population and management strategies, but also a means to conduct very detailed molecular studies focusing on ecotoxicology, reproduction, and physiology.

“Now we can peel back new layers of science to thoroughly look at many different levels of the quail problem, including the utilization of whole-genome information for monitoring modern genetic diversity, reconstructing historic population trends, and even considering genetic similarity in relation to the translocation of wild bobwhites to suitable habitats.”

I confess I don’t know what will surface from this new technology in the near future, but I suspect Drs. Watson and Crick didn’t know in 1963 when they discovered the DNA double-helix either. Ideas?

Citation: Halley YA, Dowd SE, Decker JE, Seabury PM, Bhattarai E, et al. (2014) A Draft De Novo Genome Assembly for the Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) Reveals Evidence for a Rapid Decline in Effective Population Size Beginning in the Late Pleistocene. PLoS ONE 9(3): e90240. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0090240..

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