The rock wren is a species in decline due to ongoing predation by introduced mammals and is represented by a fragmented population, but is generally difficult to survey to get accurate estimates of numbers. The purpose of this research is to use genetic tools to identify at-risk populations and potential strongholds of rock wren, and to facilitate management of this threatened but under-studied alpine species. This research is sanctioned by DOC Research & Development, and is partially funded through FRST’s Sustaining & Restoring Biodiversity programme. Using DNA from individual rock wren sampled from across the species’ range throughout the South Island, we will identify populations that are genetically similar, populations with high and low genetic variation, and any genetically unique populations. This information will identify populations that can be used for translocations and reintroductions in the conservation management of the species. A thorough knowledge of genetic population structure will also allow managers to prioritise other management efforts, such as predator control in areas of important rock wren populations. As such, our study will aid the conservation of this unique alpine species.
We are also interested in exploring options for assisted migration. Rock wrens are alpine species threatened by climate change: as the climate warms, alpine habitat is lost. Rock wren populations are at risk of extinction in isolated, low elevation areas because they probably lack the ability to disperse to higher elevation ranges. Isolated, low altitude populations could require assisted migration to high altitude strongholds. Such high altitude refuges (in conjunction with predator control) may be particularly important to ensure the persistence of alpine species such as rock wren because there is only one island refuge (Secretary Island) with sufficient alpine habitat to consider for translocation and this island will only protect a fraction of the species. This study will identify at-risk populations and potential strongholds that could be contemplated as future refuges.