Natalia Przelomska is a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History and at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics. Natalia is a molecular biologist specializing in the evolutionary histories of plant and animal populations in an anthropological context.
Przelomska’s research at the Smithsonian Institute primarily concerns ‘ahu’ula—feathered capes and cloaks, most of which were manufactured on the Hawaiian islands 150 to 300 years ago. These cloaks were adorned with vibrantly colored red, yellow, black and occasionally green feathers from forest bird families—Hawaiian honeycreepers (Drepanidinae) and Hawaiian honeyeaters (Mohoidae). Many species from these families are now endangered or extinct, including all Mohoid species.
Using feathers that have come loose from the capes, Przelomska is applying a DNA capture method and high-throughput sequencing with the aim of characterizing the genomic diversity of these bird species over time and assessing the population structure of extinct species. This theoretical knowledge will feed into setting conservation priorities for avian species, for which rates of extinction are particularly high on oceanic islands. From the anthropological perspective, this research will help retrieve valuable cultural information regarding ‘ahu’ula, for which historical records are lacking.