Rock Ptarmigan

Study of genetic structure in Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus, Montin 1776) from Disko and Zackenberg

By Frode Bergan

Sampling trip to Lyngmarksbreen. Photo: F. Bergan

The aim of this project, which will be part of my master thesis at Telemark University College (TUC) in Norway, is to examine genetic structures in, and differences between populations from western Greenland (Qeqertarsuaq, Disko) and from areas close to Zackenberg field station on the northern east cost of Greenland.

The Rock Ptarmigan in Greenland is divided into 3 subspecies according to Browning (1979), namely the L.m. captus in the north, the L.m. saturatus on the central west and the L.m. reinhardti in the south.  This division into races are based on thorough morphological studies.  Later there have been several studies addressing genetic structure in the Rock Ptarmigan that also have included Greenlandic birds (see f.i. Sahlman et al. 2009 and Holder et al. 2004), but to my knowledge there is no study addressing saturatus vs captus. In this study I hope to shed some genetic light on these two subspecies.  This will in turn hopefully add to a basis in the management of the different populations.

The sampling of material will be non-invasive in terms of using field-collected fecal pellets and feathers as DNA source, and invasive in terms of using samples from hunted birds (the latter only from Disko).  All the analysis will be done in our laboratory at TUC, were DNA will be extracted from the samples and different genetic markers (microsatellites) will be amplified in Polymerase Chain Reactions (PCR).  In further downstream analysis, products of the microsatellites from the PCR will be run through capillary electrophoresis to reveal the  genetic structure.

The other part of my master thesis will be a practical approach to test out the limitations in using fecal pellets from Rock Ptarmigan as DNA source, by sampling natural in situ “pellet stations” regularly beginning from a fresh state.  This part will take place in Norway close to TUC campus.  My thesis is supervised by Associate professor Howard Parker and Associate professor Mona Sæbø, both from the Environmental Studies at the TUC.

From the 29. of March to the 19. of April I have been very fortunate to stay here at the Arctic Station in Qeqertarsuaq to collect samples and work on my project.  Most of the time here I will be out in the field on my skies to collect samples with, or without a rifle on my shoulder. From the Zackenberg area which is quite a bit to walk on skies from here, even for a Norwegian, I have been very fortunate to have samples from Associate professor at University of Copenhagen Kirsten S. Christoffersen .


Browning, M.R. 1979.  Distribution, geographic variation, and taxonomy of Lagopus mutus in Greenland and northern Canada.  Dansk ornithologisk forenings tidsskrift 73: 29-40.

Holder, K et al, 2004.  Genetic diversity and management of Nearctic rock ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus ).  Can. J. Zool. 82:  564-575.

Sahlman, T. et al. 2009. Islands in the ice: colonization routes for rock ptarmigan to the Svalbard archipelago.  Ecography 32: 840-848.

Shitsamples from Lyngmarksfjeld. Photo: F. Bergan

About me
My daily work as an engineer is at Telemark University College, Norway were I have been employed since 2000.  I have a Cand Mag degree in Environmental studies at TUC beside a technical education from the Norwegian Airforce.  Research assistance in terrestrial – and freshwater ecology together with hydrogeology, DNA lab equipment/analysis and fieldcourse supervising are my main tasks.  But in between, my focus is on this study of genetic methods and analysis in the Rock Ptarmigan.  Mainly datacollection and also writing on my thesis is my excuse for staying here at Arctic Station with its long and interesting research history and beautiful surroundings.

My subject  was initially inspired by my supervisors  Dr. Howard Parker and Dr. Mona Sæbø.  They also supervise TUC student Elin Sveinhaug in her Msc. on genetic structure in possibly isolated mountaintop populations of Rock Ptarmigan in the south of  Norway.

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