Wales backdrop

Level 4 undergraduate student Emily recently spent two weeks at International Wildlife Consultants (IWC) UK ltd, a falcon breeding facility in Carmarthen, Wales to assess the sperm quality of their stud falcons. This project allowed Emily to collect data for her Masters research project whilst providing the falcon centre with important information on individual stud semen quality to facilitate the best management of their breeding programmes.

Gyr Falcon

IWC UK ltd is one of the oldest falcon breeding centres in the UK and have a breeding stock of over 100 gyr and peregrine falcons. The facility has bred falcons since 1975 and export worldwide. IWC UK ltd are also involved in many international falcon conservation and research projects. In Carmarthen, a small, captive population of New Zealand falcons was founded by director Nick Fox OBE in the 1970s from 6 imported birds. The New Zealand falcon has been in decline since the arrival of man to New Zealand and has lost 60% of its former range. The captive population at the Wales facility has allowed research and breeding of this species.

Emily’s level 4 project aims to explore the prevalence, causes and consequences of DNA fragmentation in bird sperm. Despite sperm DNA fragmentation being extensively researched in human fertility studies, very little research has been conducted on sperm DNA fragmentation in birds. High levels of sperm DNA fragmentation in humans have been found to cause reduced pregnancy success, however little is known about any similar effects in birds. Emily has adapted an assay commonly used in mammalian fertility research for avian sperm using zebra finches as a study model. The collaboration with IWC has allowed Emily to use the assay on a number of other bird species such as gyr, peregrine and New Zealand falcons and even quail.

After transporting equipment from the Sheffield to Carmarthen, a temporary falcon fertility lab was set up at the facility. Sperm samples were primarily collected voluntarily from imprinted birds through the use of copulation hats. Emily was allocated a portion of each sample before the rest was used for artificial insemination of females. Emily used the Sperm Class Analyser CASA system to video each sperm sample and assess motility. Semen from each stud was fixed and stained for morphology and DNA fragmentation assessment back in Sheffield.

Casa

Once back in Sheffield, data on sperm concentration, morphology, abnormality, motility and DNA fragmentation will be collected. This data will be collated with hatching success data from the breeding facility and with fertilisation success data from unhatched eggs sent to the TRB lab to determine why they failed.

The collaboration between the TRB lab and IWC UK Ltd will produce a full picture of the male falcons’ sperm quality and consequent reproductive success in the 2014 breeding season. This knowledge can be applied in following years to ensure maximum efficiency and success of the IWC’s breeding programmes.

Thanks are given to the Scurfield family for awarding Emily the Scurfield Memorial Bursary to help fund this project.