Meet the Winners:

Dr. Leilton Luna

2023 BioOne Ambassador

BioOne Ambassador Award

From Discovery to Conservation: The Araripe Manakin and the Importance of Genetic Monitoring for Endangered Species

Profile view of an Araripe Manakin in flight. The bird has a white body, black tail and wing feathers, and a bright read head and stripe down it's back.
The flight of the male Araripe Manakin, Crato, Brazil. © Ciro Albano

“We have no right to exterminate the species that evolved without us. We have the responsibility to do everything we can to preserve their continued existence.”

Preserving biodiversity is a crucial aspect of conservation efforts, and monitoring endangered species is a critical component of this process. The possibility of losing species recently discovered by science raises concerns about our ability to preserve biodiversity in the face of rapid global change. An example of this is the Araripe Manakin, which was discovered in 1998 and immediately added to the IUCN red list of critically endangered species and is now one of the most endangered birds in the world. With a population size of more than 800 individuals and occupying a small stretch of 40 km² of Atlantic Forest, in the Chapada do Araripe northeastern Brazil, this species is at serious risk of extinction due to habitat loss, climate change, and genetic effects inherent in small populations.

Since the discovery of the Araripe Manakin, the Association for Research and Preservation of Aquatic Ecosystems (AQUASIS) has been closely monitoring its population to identify and mitigate threats. In the last two decades, population censuses have shown a significant average decline of 26% due to forest destruction and severe droughts exacerbated by global warming. Although these factors are overtly detrimental to the species, they may also pose less apparent but highly menacing dangers, such as a reduction in genetic diversity and increased risks associated with inbreeding. Knowing this, we started an investigation to explore this possibility.

My role in this research was to investigate the impact of habitat fragmentation on the species’ ability to disperse and maintain genetic diversity, as well as to assess changes in inbreeding levels, using genetic data collected over a window of 14 years (2003 – 2017) of the Araripe Manakin conservation project. As a scientist, I am fascinated by the genetic monitoring’s potential to inform conservation programs for endangered species. Genetic technology provides valuable information about a species’ genetic diversity, inbreeding levels, and gene flow, which can help to improve conservation and management strategies. In the case of the Araripe Manakin, we found both positive and negative population genetic aspects. Despite intense habitat fragmentation, the species still maintains levels of gene flow that help retain genetic diversity. However, the genetic diversity levels of the Araripe Manakin are critically low and are further compromised by the recent population size declines. These findings underscore the importance of ongoing genetic monitoring to track changes in variability that could be alarming to the species’ health, as well as maintaining habitat restoration efforts to ensure the manakin’s survival.

Two examples of street art featuring the Araripe Manakin by artists from the Cariri region
The Araripe Manakin is celebrated by artists from the Cariri region, reinforcing his symbol as a protector of nature. © Helio Filho

But how can genetic monitoring help the Araripe Manakin conservation? Think of genetic monitoring like a check-up at the doctor’s office – it helps us identify potential health problems before they become serious. Without monitoring, we risk losing vital genetic diversity, which can lead to weaker species that struggle to cope with environmental challenges. By implementing genetic monitoring, we can better understand and manage threatened species, helping them to thrive and play their important roles in ecosystem processes. Based on our results, we have designed specific preventive measures to avoid the reduction of adaptive potential of the Araripe Manakin through the loss of genetic diversity. Some of our recommendations involve recolonizing recently restored forest areas and assessing nest predation and parasite risks to help maintain stable population levels. Since then, our work has been instrumental in informing the Brazilian government’s national conservation plan for this charismatic bird, which is now serving as a model for other endangered species in the country, such as Grey-breasted Parakeet.

The conservation plan has not only brought attention to the importance of preserving the Manakin, but it has also changed the awareness of the local population in the Cariri region, in northeastern Brazil, through environmental education initiatives. In addition, birdwatchers, and nature enthusiasts from all over the world come to experience the unique sight of the Araripe Manakin, providing a boost to the local economy through eco-tourism. This increased visibility of the importance of environmental preservation in the Cariri region is a significant step towards promoting sustainable development and protecting biodiversity in the area and beyond. Incorporating genetic monitoring into the conservation plan of the Araripe Manakin exemplifies the significance of ongoing research for preserving endangered species, which can have positive impacts on both the environment and the economy.

Finally, in a world where biodiversity is constantly under threat, the story of the Araripe Manakin serves as a wake-up call for all of us. We must ask ourselves whether we are pushing biodiversity beyond its limits, jeopardizing not just one species but many others we may not even know to exist. But we can make a difference. Investing in the continuity of research enables us to monitor endangered species, detect potential risks, and devise preventive measures that enhance their chances of survival in the face of rapid environmental changes. Beyond that, the ongoing monitoring of the Araripe Manakin exemplify the significance of collaboration between scientists, conservationists, policymakers, and local communities in preserving endangered species. Therefore, we can ensure that Araripe Manakin’s story is not a tragedy but a call to action, inspiring us to work tirelessly to preserve the remarkable biodiversity of our planet.

This response is in reference to:

Genetic monitoring of the Critically Endangered Araripe Manakin reveals low diversity and declining effective population size

Ornithological Applications, 124(2): 1-12. (2022).
Leilton Willians Luna, Sofia Marques Silva, Weber Andrade de Girão e Silva, Milene Garbim Gaiotti, Regina H. Macedo, Juliana Araripe, Péricles Sena do Rêgo

Headshot of Dr. Leilton Luna

Dr. Leilton Luna

From Discovery to Conservation: The Araripe Manakin and the Importance of Genetic Monitoring for Endangered Species

I’m a Brazilian biologist, born in the Amazonian state of Pará, with a passion for understanding how species adapt, diversify, and become extinct in a changing world. With degrees in environmental biology and zoology from the Federal University of Pará, I’m driven by collaboration and communication among researchers, policymakers, and the community to conserve biodiversity.

What drew you to the research topic you explored in your submission?

The combination of personal connection and academic interest drew me to the research topic of genetics applied to the conservation of the Araripe Manakin. As a child, I spent many summers exploring the forests of the Chapada do Araripe in northeastern Brazil, not knowing at the time of the existence of this unique species. Later in my academic training, I developed a strong desire to use my knowledge to contribute to the preservation of biodiversity. When the opportunity arose to work with Professor Péricles Rêgo on the conservation genetics of the Araripe Manakin, I jumped at the chance. My personal familiarity with the region coupled with my academic interest in biodiversity conservation made this research topic a perfect fit. I felt that I could make a real impact on the future survival of this endangered species and work alongside dedicated biologists and conservationists to make a difference.

How do you see your work contributing to public policy, citizen science, and/or science education more broadly?

My work in genetic monitoring of the Araripe Manakin fills me with a deep sense of purpose and fulfillment, as I believe it has the power to contribute significantly to public policy, citizen science, and science education more broadly. By advocating for the importance of genetic technology in endangered species conservation, I hope to inspire policymakers and the general public to take action in protecting our biodiversity. Through educational campaigns in the Cariri region and communities around the Chapada do Araripe, we are spreading awareness about the importance of research and monitoring of the Manakin Tern population, and the role that citizens can play in supporting conservation efforts.

I firmly believe that our work serves as an example of the power of science and technology in addressing environmental challenges. By demonstrating the direct impacts of genetic variation on population size and adaptability, we are providing policymakers with crucial information that can guide future management strategies. In this way, our recommendations are already shaping the national conservation action plan for the Araripe Manakin and will hopefully inspire similar efforts for other endangered species.

Overall, I am humbled and grateful to be able to contribute to such a critical issue, and I hope that my work in genetic monitoring can help inspire a greater appreciation and understanding of the importance of science education, citizen science, and public policy in protecting our planet’s precious biodiversity.

What are your continuing research goals for the future (near and/or far)? What topics, areas, subjects are you interested in exploring?

My continuing research goals for the future center around wildlife conservation, with a focus on genetic sequencing technology and population aspects, along with information from geographic landscapes and evolutionary history. As a postdoctoral researcher at Pennsylvania State University, I am currently applying population genomics methods to game species conservation. My near-term interests lie in identifying the impacts of harvest, emerging diseases, climate change, and habitat loss, on the adaptive persistence of these species. Additionally, I am interested in identifying ecological proxies that can be used to predict spatial variation in the genetic diversity of threatened species of socio-economic importance. In the long term, I aspire to lead a research group at an educational institution where I can teach and inspire young people to apply their knowledge to biodiversity conservation. In particular, I hope to provide opportunities to underrepresented students who have faced economic and cultural adversity, similar to my own experiences. Ultimately, I hope to contribute to the preservation of our planet’s rich biodiversity, by developing innovative conservation strategies that take into account the complex interplay of genetic, ecological, and anthropogenic factors.

What are your continuing research goals for the future (near and/or far)? What topics, areas, subjects are you interested in exploring?

Reflecting on my journey and the impact of my research on conservation efforts, I cannot help but feel a sense of gratitude and fulfillment. Growing up in the Amazon region instilled in me a deep respect and appreciation for nature and pursuing a career in biology felt like a natural choice. However, the lack of resources and opportunities for education posed a significant challenge, and there were moments when I doubted whether I would be able to achieve my goals. But with the support of inspiring teachers and professionals, I persevered and continued to pursue my passion for preserving biodiversity through science and education. Knowing that my work has contributed to conservation plans for endangered species and has been nominated for the BioOne Ambassador Award makes me grateful for the opportunities I have had and the journey that has brought me here. As I continue my research, I hope to inspire the next generation of scientists and contribute to a world where biodiversity is valued and protected for generations to come.


Dr. Leilton Luna

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American Ornithological Society

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Amanda Rogers

BioOne Publishing
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