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The Black Francolin. Reawakening the memory and assessing the origin of a prized courtly bird in the Mediterranean

07 Feb 2020 - Giovanni Forcina, AGRIGENOMICS, CIBIO-InBIO/UP | 15h30
The Black Francolin. Reawakening the memory and assessing the origin of a prized courtly bird in the Mediterranean


Some animals are somehow paradoxical: well impressed in the collective imaginary of the recent past, they might be soon removed from our memory. Among these, the black francolin (Francolinus francolinus; BF) is an exemplary case. Presently distributed from Cyprus and the Middle East eastwards to the Indian subcontinent, the BF was also found in Italy and Spain till the XIXth c., yet its nativeness to such areas was dubious. Held in high regard by the aristocracy in Medieval and Renaissance Europe as courtly gamebird, with severe bans restricting its exploitation to ruling elites, this species was traditionally hunted by falconry. The BF is often mentioned in letters exchanged by rulers both in Italy and Spain, which points to this bird as symbol of wealth and prestige. When the strict protection ceased, the BF rapidly went extinct in the western Mediterranean due to uncontrolled harvest and land reclamation, notwithstanding the belated attempts to save the species with the offer of cash prices for people who protected nests and broods. Here we present a multidisciplinary study relying on a thorough historical documentation and an extensive DNA analysis of modern and archival specimens (mtDNA Control Region gene; n = 281) to unveil the origin of the BF in the western Mediterranean. Our data targeted the species as nonnative to this area, pointing to two geographically distinct genetic stocks. If, on the one hand, the invoked importation from Cyprus during the Crusades was confirmed on a molecular basis, on the other hand strong evidences for importations from southern Asia through long-distance trade routes emerged. Noteworthy, this finding shed further light on the major role played by Portuguese merchants in satisfying the demand for exotic species at European courts and, more generally, on the sometimes neglected involvement of human-mediated species dispersal in shaping present-day biodiversity.

Giovanni Forcina started his academic career and obtained his PhD at the University of Pisa (Italy) in 2014 defending a thesis on the conservation genetics of the red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa) and the black francolin (Francolinus francolinus). Subsequently, he moved to Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC) in Seville (Spain), the National University of Singapore and Kyoto University (Japan), working on a number of avian and mammal species. He is currently part of the AGRIGENOMICS group led by Albano Beja-Pereira at CIBIO to work on a project dealing with the genome characterization of goat and sheep breeds native to Portugal, with special focus on their microbiome composition. In this talk, Giovanni will present the results of part of his doctoral studies which somehow changed the trajectory of his research toward an historical and literary perspective. This shift, completely unplanned at the beginning, ended up helping greatly to understand biological facts that otherwise would have been difficult to interpret based solely on molecular data.

[Host: Albano Beja Pereira, AGRIGENOMICS]

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