It isn’t easy being blue – the cost of colour in fairy wrens



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New research shows that fairy-wrens become more cautious as they change colour.
Niki Teunissen, Author provided

Alexandra McQueen, Monash University and Anne Peters, Monash University

Male superb fairy-wrens change colour every year, from dull brown to bright blue. But being blue may be risky if you are a tiny bird that is easily spotted by predators.

Published today, our new study found that male fairy-wrens adjust their risk-taking behaviour after undergoing colour change, becoming more cautious while brightly coloured.

Superb fairy wrens help scientists learn about the evolutionary costs of being beautiful.

Colour and risk

For many males, having beautiful colours is important for attracting choosy females. Researchers think attractive colours come with a cost, so that only the highest quality males can afford to display them. This may be helpful to females looking to select the best mate.

One possible cost of bright colours is increased predation risk, as bright animals are easily seen in their natural habitat. This cost can be dramatic (i.e. being eaten) but may more often involve changes in behaviour to mitigate risk, such as spending more time scanning for predators and being more responsive to perceived threats. Such behaviours are costly because they reduce the time available for foraging and are energetically expensive.

Male superb fairy wren.
Kaspar Delhey, Author provided

A relationship between bright colours, predation risk and cautious behaviour may seem intuitive; however this is difficult to test. This is because different coloured animals may also differ in their age, size, escape tactics and personality, which can influence both their behaviour and actual predation risk.

To address this, we tested whether individuals adjust their response to risk according to changes in their plumage colour.

Fairy-wren antics

Superb fairy-wrens are small, charismatic songbirds. They live in groups with a dominant male and female and, often, several younger males.

These birds are vulnerable to predators such as kookaburras, butcherbirds, currawongs and goshawks. When a group member spots a predator, it gives an alarm call to warn the others. In response, other group members may race for cover, or ignore the alarm and continue about their business.

Male fairy-wrens change colour by replacing dull brown feathers with bright blue, black and indigo ones prior to breeding, turning brown again after the breeding season is complete. Individuals change colour at different times of the year, ranging from the Australian autumn (March-April) to late spring (October).

A male superb fairy-wren in brown plumage (left) and bright blue-and-back plumage (right)
Niki Teunissen and Kaspar Delhey, Author provided

Although female fairy-wrens have a stable, social partner, when egg-laying time comes, they briefly leave their territory under the cover of darkness and “visit” the male who became blue earliest in the year. Many of the females in the surrounding area prefer the same male, who may father around 70% of the offspring in the neighbourhood. These attractive males are blue for longest (remaining blue for 10-12 months of the year) and so may face the greatest risk of predation.

Tracking fairy-wrens

We gave fairy-wrens different coloured leg bands, allowing us to follow the same individuals over time.

Fairy-wren ‘YOB’ with coloured leg bands (Yellow-Orange-Blue)
Alexandra McQueen, Author provided

We compared the behaviour of the same males while they were brown and blue, as well as males that remained brown or blue throughout the study. This meant we could test for the effect of colour on responses to perceived risk while accounting for individual differences and possible seasonal changes in behaviour.

We estimated cautiousness in the birds by testing their response to alarm calls. This involved sneaking up on unsuspecting fairy-wrens in their natural habitat and broadcasting fairy-wren alarm calls from portable speakers.

We used two types of alarms: a low-danger alarm, which warns of a moderate threat, such as a predator that is far away, and a high-danger alarm, which signals an immediate threat.

Low-danger superb fairy-wren alarm call.
Robert Magrath48 KB (download)

High-danger superb fairy-wren alarm call.
Robert Magrath73.1 KB (download)

Costs of being blue

Responses to the low-danger alarm included fleeing for cover, an intermediate response (such as ducking or looking skywards) and no response, when the alarm was ignored. Fairy-wrens fled immediately after hearing the high-danger alarm, but differed in the time taken to return to the open.

We found that fairy-wrens were more cautious while blue; they fled more often after hearing low-danger alarms and took longer to emerge from hiding after fleeing in response to high-danger alarms. Blue fairy-wrens also spent more time scanning their surroundings and less time foraging compared to brown wrens.

This suggests that fairy-wrens perceive themselves to be at a higher risk of predation while bright blue and adjust their behaviour accordingly.

Fairy-wrens are more likely to flee in response to alarms calls while in blue plumage.
Kaspar Delhey, Author provided

Blue decoys?

Intriguingly, fairy-wrens also adjusted their behaviour according to the colour of other wrens in the group. When a blue male was nearby, wrens were less responsive to alarm calls and devoted less time to keeping a look-out.

Perhaps this is because fairy-wrens view blue group members as colourful decoys in the event of an attack. This could occur if predators are biased towards attacking the most conspicuous animal, which reduces the predation risk for surrounding individuals. Brown wrens could also be taking advantage of the greater time blue males spend scanning, allowing them to lower their guard.

Being blue for longest gives males the best chance of attracting females, but they need to be extra careful lest they get eaten before it comes to that.


The ConversationCoauthors on this research are Annalise Naimo, Niki Teunissen, Robert Magrath and Kaspar Delhey.

Alexandra McQueen, PhD Candidate in Behavioural Ecology, Monash University and Anne Peters, Associate Professor , Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The world’s tropical zone is expanding, and Australia should be worried



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‘Tropics’ may conjure images of sun-kissed islands, but the expanding tropical zone could bring drought and cyclones further south.
Pedro Fernandes/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia

The Tropics are defined as the area of Earth where the Sun is directly overhead at least once a year — the zone between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

However, tropical climates occur within a larger area about 30 degrees either side of the Equator. Earth’s dry subtropical zones lie adjacent to this broad region. It is here that we find the great warm deserts of the world.

Earth’s bulging waistline

Earth’s tropical atmosphere is growing in all directions, leading one commentator to cleverly call this Earth’s “bulging waistline”.

Since 1979, the planet’s waistline been expanding poleward by 56km to 111km per decade in both hemispheres. Future climate projections suggest this expansion is likely to continue, driven largely by human activities – most notably emissions of greenhouse gases and black carbon, as well as warming in the lower atmosphere and the oceans.

If the current rate continues, by 2100 the edge of the new dry subtropical zone would extend from roughly Sydney to Perth.

As these dry subtropical zones shift, droughts will worsen and overall less rain will fall in most warm temperate regions.

Poleward shifts in the average tracks of tropical and extratropical cyclones are already happening. This is likely to continue as the tropics expand further. As extratropical cyclones move, they shift rain away from temperate regions that historically rely upon winter rainfalls for their agriculture and water security.

Researchers have observed that, as climate zones change, animals and plants migrate to keep up. But as biodiversity and ecosystem services are threatened, species that can’t adjust to rapidly changing conditions face extinction.

In some biodiversity hotspots – such as the far southwest of Australia – there are no suitable land areas (only oceans) for ecosystems and species to move into to keep pace with warming and drying trends.

We are already witnessing an expansion of pests and diseases into regions that were previously climatically unsuitable. This suggests that they will attempt to follow any future poleward shifts in climate zones.

I recently drew attention to the anticipated impacts of an expanding tropics for Africa. So what might this might mean for Australia?


IPCC

Australia is vulnerable

Australia’s geographical location makes it highly vulnerable to an expanding tropics. About 60% of the continent lies north of 30°S.

As the edge of the dry subtropical zone continues to creep south, more of southern Australia will be subject to its drying effects.

Meanwhile, the fringes of the north of the continent may experience rainfall and temperature conditions that are more typical of our northern neighbours.

The effects of the expanding tropics are already being felt in southern Australia in the form of declining winter rainfall. This is especially the case in the southwest and — to a lesser extent — the continental southeast.

Future climate change projections for Australia include increasing air and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels, more hot days (over 35℃), declining rainfall in the southern continental areas, and more extreme fire weather events.

For northern Australia, changes in annual rainfall remain uncertain. However, there is a high expectation of more extreme rainfall events, many more hot days and more severe (but less frequent) tropical cyclones and associated storm surges in coastal areas.

Dealing with climate change

Adaptation to climate change will be required across all of Australia. In the south the focus will have to be on adapting to projected drying trends. Other challenges include more frequent droughts, more warm spells and hot days, higher fire weather risk and rising sea levels in coastal areas.

The future growth of the north remains debatable. I have already pointed out the lack of consideration of climate change in the White Paper for the Development of Northern Australia.

The white paper neglects to explain how planned agricultural, mining, tourism and community development will adapt to projected changes in climate over coming decades — particularly, the anticipated very high number of hot days.

For example, Darwin currently averages 47 hot days a year, but under a high carbon emission scenario, the number of hot days could approach 320 per year by 2090. If the north is to survive and thrive as a significant economic region of Australia, it will need effective climate adaptation strategies. This must happen now — not at some distant time in the future.

This requires bipartisan support from all levels of government, and a pan-northern approach to climate adaptation. It will be important to work closely with industry and affected local and Indigenous communities across the north.

These sectors must have access to information and solutions drawn from interdisciplinary, “public good” research. In the face of this urgent need, CSIRO cuts to such research and the defunding of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility should be ringing alarm bells.

The ConversationAs we enter uncharted climate territory, never before has public-good research been more important and relevant.

Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Huge restored reef aims to bring South Australia’s oysters back from the brink



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Mud oysters played a largely unappreciated part in Australia’s history.
Cayne Layton, Author provided

Dominic McAfee, University of Adelaide and Sean Connell, University of Adelaide

The largest oyster reef restoration project outside the United States is underway in the coastal waters of Gulf St Vincent, near Ardrossan in South Australia. Construction began earlier this month. Some 18,000 tonnes of limestone and 7 million baby oysters are set to provide the initial foundations for a 20-hectare reef.

The A$4.2-million project will be built in two phases and should be complete by December 2018. The first phase is the 4-hectare trial currently being built by Primary Industries and Regions South Australia; the second phase will see the reef expand to 20 hectares, led by The Nature Conservancy.

Some of the 18,000 tonnes of limestone destined for the seafloor.
D. McAfee

Just 200 years ago the native mud oyster, Ostrea angasi, formed extensive reefs in the Gulf, along more than 1,500km of South Australia’s coastline. Today there are no substantial accumulations of mud oysters anywhere around mainland Australia, with just one healthy reef remaining in Tasmania.

This restoration project aims to pull our native mud oyster back from the brink of extinction in the wild, and restore a forgotten ecosystem that once teemed with marine life.

More than just seafood

Oysters played a large role in Australia’s colonial history. When European settlers first arrived they had to navigate a patchwork of oyster reefs (also called shellfish reefs) that filled the shallow waters of our temperate bays. These enormous structures could cover 10 hectares in a single patch, providing an easily exploited food resource for the struggling early settlers. Oyster shell was burned to produce lime, and the colony’s first buildings were built with the help of oyster cement.

Collectively, these pre-colonial oyster reefs would have rivalled the geographic extent of the Great Barrier Reef, covering thousands of kilometres of Australia’s eastern and southern coastlines.

The history goes back much further too. For thousands of years oyster reefs fed and fuelled trade among Aboriginal communities. Shell middens dating back 2,000 years attest to the cultural importance of oysters for coastal communities, who ate them in abundance and used their shells to fashion fishhooks and cutting tools.

Health oyster reef in Tasmania.
C. Gillies

The insatiable appetite of the newly settled Europeans for this bountiful resource was devastating. Not only were live oysters harvested for food, but the dead shell foundations that are critical for the settlement of new oysters were scraped from the seabed for lime burning. Armed with bottom-dredges a wave of exploitation spread across the coast, first overexploiting oyster reefs close to major urban centres and then further afield. The combination of the lost hard shell bed and increased sediment runoff from the rapidly altered coastal landscape saw oyster populations crash within a century of colonisation.

Today oyster populations are at less than 1% of their pre-colonial extent in Australia. This is not a unique story – globally it is estimated that 85% of oyster habitat has been lost in the past few centuries, making it one of the most exploited marine habitats in the world.

Today, across much of Australia’s east coast you will see Sydney rock oysters encrusting rocky shores, creating a thin veneer around the edge of our bays and estuaries. On the south coast you occasionally see a solitary mud oyster clinging to a jetty pylon. Many Australians don’t realise that this familiar sight represents a mere shadow of the incredible and largely forgotten ecosystems that oysters once supported.

Oysters are an unsung ecological superhero, with the capacity to increase marine biodiversity, clean coastal waters, enhance neighbouring seagrass, reduce coastal erosion, and even slow the rate of climate change. When oysters cement together, their aggregations form habitat for a great diversity of other invertebrates. A 25cm-square patch of oysters can host more than 1,000 individual invertebrates from a range of different biological groups, in turn providing a smorgasbord for fish.

Restoration site, formerly covered with dense oyster habitat.
D. McAfee

A solitary oyster can filter about 100 litres of water a day, which means that en masse they can function as the “kidneys” of our bays, filtering excess nutrients from the water and depositing them on the seafloor. In doing so, they encourage seagrass growth, while their physical structures help to dissipate wave energy and thus reduce the impact of storm surges.

As if all that weren’t enough, oysters are also a carbon sink, building calcium carbonate shells that are buried in the seafloor after death and eventually compacted to rock, thus helping to prevent carbon dioxide from cycling back into the atmosphere.

Building it back

Restoring oyster reefs has the potential to return these ecosystem services and increase the productivity of our coastal ecosystems. The Gulf of St Vincent project came about through an election promise by the South Australian Government to boost recreational fishing. A collaboration between The Nature Conservancy, Yorke Penninsula Council and the South Australian Government will deliver the reef’s foundations, while my colleagues and I at the University of Adelaide are working to ensure that the restored oysters survive and thrive, and that the reef continues to grow.

The ConversationHopefully this is just the beginning for large-scale oyster restoration in Australia, and the lessons learned from this project will guide more restoration projects to improve the health of our oceans. With other restoration projects also underway in Victoria and Western Australia, the tide is hopefully turning for our once numerous oysters.

Dominic McAfee, Postdoctoral researcher, marine ecology, University of Adelaide and Sean Connell, Professor, Ecology, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.