We examined the utility of feathers and egg shell membranes, deposited in the nests of Spectacled Eiders (Somateria fischeri), as a source of DNA for genetic studies at both the population and individual level. The potential for feather DNA contamination as a result of female behavioral interactions (e.g. nest parasitism), reuse of nest sites from previous years, or other unknown occurrences was acknowledged and specifically tested. DNA was successfully extracted from both feathers and egg shell membranes and waterfowl microsatellite loci were used to construct individual genotypes. We found no difference in the genotypes obtained from nest feathers or blood of the incubating female. Detection of nest feather contamination was possible with as little as one feather when samples from multiple females were intentionally mixed. Triplicate DNA extractions from 33 nests provided a means of detecting contamination in 3 nests. Egg membranes proved a viable source of offspring DNA and can contribute valuable data to investigations of parentage when assayed jointly with maternal feather DNA. Nest materials provide an efficient, non-invasive method of genetic sampling that can be readily incorporated into field research. However, the natural history traits and mating strategies of a species must be considered during sample collection to identify the possible sources of nest materials (e.g., paternal, maternal, parasite, etc.). Specific experiments should also be designed to test sampling assumptions.
Additional publication details
Nest materials as a source of genetic data for avian ecological studies