Bird nests in natural history collections are an abundant yet vastly underutilized source of genetic information. We sequenced the nuclear ribosomal internal transcribed spacer to identify plant species used as nest material in two contemporary (2003 and 2018) and two historical (both 1915) nest specimens constructed by Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) and Savannah Sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis). A total of 13 (22%) samples yielded single, strong bands that could be identified using GenBank resources: six plants (Angiospermae), six green algae (Chlorophyta), and one ciliate (Ciliophora). Two native plant species identified in the nests included Festuca microstachys, which was introduced to the nest collection site by restoration practitioners, and Rosa californica, identified in a nest collected from a lost habitat that existed about 100 years ago. Successful sequencing was correlated with higher sample mass and DNA quality, suggesting future studies should select larger pieces of contiguous material from nests and materials that appear to have been fresh when incorporated into the nest. This molecular approach was used to distinguish plant species that were not visually identifiable, and did not require disassembling the nest specimens as is a traditional practice with nest material studies. The many thousands of nest specimens in natural history collections hold great promise as sources of genetic information to address myriad ecological questions.
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Alex Rinkert, Tracy M. Misiewicz, Benjamin E. Carter, Aleezah Salmaan, and Justen B. Whittall. "Bird nests as botanical time capsules: DNA barcoding identifies the contents of contemporary and historical nests" PLoS ONE (2021). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0257624