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article imageUnraveling the global invasion of the Monk Parakeet

By Karen Graham     Apr 30, 2015 in Science
Monk parakeets, also called Quaker parrots, began invading Europe and North America about 40 or 50 years ago. While the global spread of this delightful parrot is amazing, they all appear to have originated from one area of South America.
Highly intelligent and gregarious, the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) or monk parrot is a fantastic little bird to keep as a pet. Getting about 11-inches when fully grown and having a much more reasonable lifespan and price than the African gray parrot, monk parakeets have overtaken the cockatiel as a favored pet for many people.
Because of their friendliness and ability to quickly develop a broad vocabulary, thousands of monk parakeets were imported into the United States and Europe for the pet trade. But it wasn't long before feral populations of these birds began to sprout up, in the 1960s in the U.S. and the 1980s in Europe.
A monk parrot is right at home in Puerto Tico.
A monk parrot is right at home in Puerto Tico.
Studying two supposedly different populations
A new study has revealed a fascinating bit of information about the two supposedly different populations of feral monk parrots in Europe and the U.S. They appear to have originated from the same small area of their native range, believed to be in Uruguay, South America.
While unraveling the global invasion history of monk parrots, it was discovered by researchers that the North American and European populations of monk parrots had a lower genetic diversity than native bird populations. This was an interesting and important finding because it has always been thought that greater genetic diversity was necessary for an invasive species to survive.
Wild monk parrot colony has a community nest in Brooklyn  New York at 65th Street Dust Bowl Park.
Wild monk parrot colony has a community nest in Brooklyn, New York at 65th Street Dust Bowl Park.
Parrot Wizard
The more genetically diverse a gene pool can be, then the greater the chance of a variety of traits being available for natural selection to work, helping the species to survive and ultimately thrive. This one facet of life can work with any species, where only the strongest or best traits dominate genetically to aid in the specie's survival.
Long distance global study using DNA analysis
Using mitochondrial DNA analysis and microsatellite genotypic data, researchers in the U.S., Spain, Canada and Australia studied the degree of genetic variation in reconstructing a history of the invasion. Almost immediately, questions were raised about the similarities in the genetic patterns found in the monk parrot populations of the two separate invasions, one in Europe in the 1980s, and the one in the U.S. in the 1960s.
Co-author of the study, Elizabeth Hobson, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis said, "One possibility is that these invasive populations may be under similar selection pressures. Most of the invasive populations are restricted to urban and suburban habitats, which may be selecting for some key traits that increase fitness of individuals in those environments."
Baby monk parrots waiting to be fed. These parrots are being hand-raised.
Baby monk parrots waiting to be fed. These parrots are being hand-raised.
Hobson says social behavior may also play a part. "It could make it easier for a species to invade a new area and survive, or it could inhibit invasions in other circumstances," she said.
Behavior and destructiveness of the monk parrot
The monk parrot is a destructive crop pest in their native ranges in South America, destroying citrus fruits and cereal grains. In Florida and Texas, the two states with the largest populations of monk parrots, the potential for causing devastation to fruit and grain crops also exists, although, at this time, it is minimal.
From Spain to Portugal and the Channel Islands, to Great Britain, Ireland and Belgium, the monk parrot has found a home in most temperate climes around the globe. While the monk parrot is an open woodlands bird, it has readily adapted to urban and suburban life.
Monk Parakeets (also known as the Quaker Parrot) with their nests in Parque del Tío Jorge  Zaragoza...
Monk Parakeets (also known as the Quaker Parrot) with their nests in Parque del Tío Jorge, Zaragoza (also called Saragossa in English), Spain.
The monk parrots are known to build huge nests, especially on utility and power poles, causing a lot of problems for power companies. Interestingly, the little parrots are community dwellers, and the nests are more like an apartment house with each pair of birds having their own entrance into the nest.
Many people still keep the monk parrot as a pet although, in some U.S. states, it is illegal to own one.
This study was published in the online journal Molecular Ecology on April 15, 2015 under the title: Shared genetic diversity across the global invasive range of the monk parakeet suggests a common restricted geographic origin and the possibility of convergent selection
More about monk parakeet, Quaker parrot, Invasive species, genetic patterns, selection pressures
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