DNA analysis of the Cape Parrot has revealed that it's different from its closest relatives, supporting previous calls to have the bird elevated to the status of a unique species.

In a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, Willem Coetzer and colleagues discussed the DNA analysis they carried out to investigate whether or not the Cape Parrot should be considered a species all its own. The researchers genotyped more than 130 specimens from five Poicephalus species, sequencing one nuclear intron and two mitochondrial markers.

The Cape Parrot is currently considered to be a sub-species of the Poicephalus robustus, much like its fellow parrots, P. r. suahelicus and P. r. fuscicollis, but the results of the study show that the Cape Parrot is genetically distinct from other sub-species. In fact, the most recent common ancestor shared by the P. r. suahelicus, P. r. fuscicollis and Cape Parrot dates back to around two million years ago.

Treating the Cape Parrot as a species of its own will aid in better planning and implementing local and international conservation policies that will affect the welfare of the bird — hopefully qualifying it to receive protection through the Convention of the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

The Poicephalus genus represents a group of small- to medium-sized birds that are chunky in build, with relatively large heads, stout beaks and short, broad tails. Peaceful but playful, several of the species under this genus are popular as pets around the world.

In all of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Poicephalus boasts not just the highest number of parrot species but also the widest distribution. In total, there are nine sub-species — divided into two clades, or lineages.

First, there's the P. robustus clade, which includes the P. gulielmi, the red-fronted parrot; and the Cape parrot, in addition to the P. robustus. The second lineage is the P. meyeri clade, which includes P. rueppellii (Ruppell's parrot), P. meyeri (Meyer's parrot), P. cryptoxanthus (the brown-headed parrot), P. crassus (Niam-niam parrot), P. rufiventrisi (red-bellied parrot), P. senegalus (Senegal parrot) and P. flavifrons (the yellow-faced parrot).

Out of these, P. meyeri, P. flavifrons, P. senegalus, P. gulielmi and P. robustus are further divided into sub-species.

The study received funding support from the South African National Biodiversity Institute, the National Research Foundation and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Other authors include Sandi Willows-Munro, Mike Perrin and Colleen Downs.

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