New research shows lyrebirds move more litter and soil than any other digging animal



Male Superb Lyrebird in display.
Alex Maisey, Author provided

Alex Maisey, La Trobe University and Andrew Bennett, La Trobe University

When you think of lyrebirds, what comes to mind may be the sound of camera clicks, chainsaws and the songs of other birds. While the mimicry of lyrebirds is remarkable, it is not the only striking feature of this species.

In research just published, we document the extraordinary changes that lyrebirds make to the ground layer in forests in their role as an ecosystem engineer.

Ecosystem engineers change the environment in ways that impact on other species. Without lyrebirds, eastern Australia’s forests would be vastly different places.

Male lyrebird in full tail display.
Alex Maisey

What is an ecosystem engineer?

Ecosystem engineers exist in many environments. By disturbing the soil, they create new habitats or alter existing habitats, in ways that affect other organisms, such as plants and fungi.

A well-known example is the beaver, in North America, which uses logs and mud to dam a stream and create a deep pond. In doing so, it changes the aquatic habitat for many species, including frogs, herons, fish and aquatic plants. Other examples include bandicoots and bettongs.

The Superb Lyrebird acts as an ecosystem engineer by its displacement of leaf litter and soil when foraging for food. Lyrebirds use their powerful claws to rake the forest floor, exposing bare earth and mixing and burying litter, while seeking invertebrate prey such as worms, centipedes and spiders.




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Our helicopter rescue may seem a lot of effort for a plain little bird, but it was worth it


To study the role of the lyrebird as an engineer, we carried out a two-year experiment in Victoria’s Central Highlands, with three experimental treatments.

First, a fenced treatment, where lyrebirds were excluded from fenced square plots measuring 3m wide.

Second, an identical fenced plot but in which we simulated lyrebird foraging with a three-pronged hand rake (about the width of a lyrebird’s foot). This mimicked soil disturbance by lyrebirds but without the birds eating the invertebrates that lived there.

The third treatment was an unfenced, open plot (of the same size) in which wild lyrebirds were free to forage as they pleased.

Over a two-year period, we tracked changes in the litter and soil, and measured the amount of soil displaced inside and outside of these plots.

A colour-banded female lyrebird in Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria. Her powerful claws are used for foraging in litter and soil.
Meghan Lindsay

Lyrebirds dig up a lot of dirt

On average, foraging by wild lyrebirds resulted in a staggering 155 tonnes per hectare of litter and soil displaced each year throughout these forests.

To the best of our knowledge, this is more than any other digging vertebrate, worldwide.

To put this in context, most digging vertebrates around the world, such as pocket gophers, moles, bandicoots and bettongs, displace between 10-20 tonnes of material per hectare, per year.

To picture what 155 tonnes of soil looks like, imagine the load carried by five medium-sized 30 tonne dump trucks – and this is just for one hectare!

But how much does an individual lyrebird displace? At one study location we estimated the density of the lyrebird population to be approximately one lyrebird for every 2.3 hectares of forest, thanks to the work of citizen scientists led by the Sherbrooke Lyrebird Study Group.

Based on this estimate, and to use our dump truck analogy, a single lyrebird will displace approximately 11 dump trucks of litter and soil in a single year.

Lyrebirds dig up a lot of dirt in forests.

Changes to the ground layer

After two years of lyrebird exclusion, leaf litter in the fenced plots was approximately three times deeper than in the unfenced plots. Soil compaction was also greater in the fenced plots.

Where lyrebirds foraged, the soil easily crumbled and the litter layer never fully recovered to a lyrebird-free state before foraging re-occurred.

This dynamic process of disturbance by lyrebirds has been going on for millennia, profoundly shaping these forests. For organisms such as centipedes, spiders and worms living in the litter and soil, the forest floor under the influence of lyrebirds may provide new opportunities that would not exist in their absence.

Terraced soil where litter has been removed and roots exposed by foraging lyrebirds.
Alex Maisey

An ecosystem ravaged by fire

The Australian megafires of 2019/20 resulted in approximately 40% of the Superb Lyrebird’s entire distribution being incinerated, according to a preliminary analysis by BirdLife Australia.

So great was the extent of these fires that the conservation status of the lyrebird has been thrown into question. That the conservation status has fallen – from “common” to potentially being “threatened” – from a single event is deeply concerning.




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After the bushfires, we helped choose the animals and plants in most need. Here’s how we did it


Loss of lyrebird populations on this scale will have potentially far-reaching effects on forest ecology.

In the face of climate change and a heightened risk of severe wildfire, understanding the role that species such as the Superb Lyrebird play in ecosystems is more important than ever.

Without lyrebirds, eastern Australia’s forests would be vastly different places, with impacts extending well beyond the absence of their glorious song to other animals who rely on these “ecosystem engineers”.The Conversation

Alex Maisey, PhD Candidate, La Trobe University and Andrew Bennett, Professor of Ecology, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Our helicopter rescue may seem a lot of effort for a plain little bird, but it was worth it



John Harrison/WIkimedia

Rohan Clarke, Monash University; Katherine Selwood, University of Melbourne, and Rowan Mott, Monash University

This article is part of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a special project by The Conversation that tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Explore the project here and read more articles here.


As we stepped out of a military helicopter on Victoria’s east coast in February, smoke towered into the sky. We’d just flown over a blackened landscape extending as far as the eye could see. Now we were standing in an active fireground, and the stakes were high.

Emergency helicopter rescues aren’t usually part of a day’s work for conservation scientists. But for eastern bristlebirds, a potential disaster loomed.

Our mission was to catch 15-20 bristlebirds and evacuate them to Melbourne Zoo. This would provide an insurance population of this globally endangered species if their habitat was razed by the approaching fire.

As climate change grows ever worse, such rescues will be more common. Ours showed how it can be done.

A Chinook helicopter, with the bristlebird field team on board, lands in far eastern Victoria.
Tony Mitchell

The plight of the eastern bristlebird

Such a rescue may seem like a lot of effort for a small, plain brown bird. But eastern bristlebirds are important to Australia’s biodiversity.

They continue an ancient lineage of songbirds that dates back to the Gondwanan supercontinent millions of years ago. They’re reminders of wild places that used to exist, unchanged by humans.




Read more:
Yes, the Australian bush is recovering from bushfires – but it may never be the same


These days, coastal development has shrunk the eastern bristlebird’s habitat. The birds are feeble flyers, and so populations die out when their habitat patches become too small.

Fewer than 2,500 individuals remain, spread across three locations on Australia’s east coast including a 400-strong population that straddles the Victoria-New South Wales border at Cape Howe. Losing them would be a huge blow to the species’ long term prospects.

One of 15 eastern bristlebirds caught and evacuated from Cape Howe.
Author provided

A rollercoaster ride

On the day of our rescue, bushfires had been raging on Australia’s east coast for several months. The so-called Snowy complex fire that started in late December had razed parts of Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve then burnt into NSW. Now, more than a month later, that same fire had crossed back over the state border and was burning into Cape Howe.

Our 11-person field team had two chances over consecutive mornings. Using special nets, we caught nine eastern bristlebirds on one morning, and six the next. As we worked, burnt leaves caught in our nets – a tangible reminder of how close the fire was.

The captured birds were health-checked then whisked – first by 4WD, then boat and car – to a waiting flight to Melbourne. From there they were driven to special enclosures at Melbourne Zoo.

On the second day a wind change intensified the bushfire and cut short our time. As we evacuated under a darkening sky, it seemed unlikely Cape Howe would escape the flames.

A box containing eastern bristlebirds about to be loaded onto a boat.

In the ensuing days, the fire moved agonisingly close to the site until a favourable wind change spared it.

But tragedy struck days later when fire tore through eastern bristlebird habitat on the NSW side of Cape Howe. Many of the 250 individuals that lived there are presumed dead.

And despite the best efforts of vets and expert keepers at Melbourne Zoo, six of our captive birds succumbed to a fungal respiratory infection in the weeks after their arrival, which they were all likely carrying when captured.

Return to Cape Howe

Against the odds, bristlebird habitat on the Victorian side of Cape Howe remained unburnt. So in early April, we released a little flock of seven back into the wild.

We’d initially planned to attach tiny transmitters to some released bristlebirds to monitor how they settled back into their home. But COVID-19 restrictions forced us to cancel this intensive fieldwork.

Instead, each bristlebird was fitted with a uniquely coloured leg band. As restrictions ease, our team will return to Cape Howe to see how the colour-banded birds have fared.

Eastern bristlebirds released back into the wild at Howe Flat.
Darryl Whitaker/DELWP

A model for the future

The evacuation involved collaboration between government agencies and non-government organisations, with especially important coordination and oversight by Zoos Victoria, the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and Parks Victoria.

This team moved mountains of logistical hurdles. A rescue mission that would ordinarily take more than a year to plan was completed in weeks.




Read more:
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So was it all worth it? We strongly believe the answer is yes. The team did what was needed for the worst-case scenario; ultimately that scenario was avoided by a mere whisker.

But climate change is heightening fire danger and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. Soberingly, further emergency wildlife evacuations will probably be needed to prevent extinctions in future. Our mission will serve as a model for these interventions.

The Conversation

Rohan Clarke, Director, Monash Drone Discovery Platform, and Senior Lecturer in Ecology, Monash University; Katherine Selwood, Threatened Species Biologist, Wildlife Conservation & Science, Zoos Victoria and Honorary Research Fellow, Biosciences, University of Melbourne, and Rowan Mott, Biologist, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A sperm race to help save one of New Zealand’s threatened birds, the sugar-lapping hihi



File 20180409 5575 1mnx75q.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A male hihi on a flowering flax bush.
Mhairi McCready, CC BY-SA

Helen Taylor

It’s likely you’ve never heard of a hihi, let alone seen one in the wild. Also known as stitchbirds, these colourful little critters are a true taonga, or treasure. They’re only found in New Zealand, and currently restricted to just seven sanctuary sites.

Without the caché of kiwi or kākāpō, hihi have gone largely ignored by conservation fans and also, crucially, by funders. Researchers have been interested in these sunny little birds for decades because of their crazy mating system and high-octane lifestyle.

A major part of hihi research goes into figuring out ways to make more hihi and get them in more places. Now, we’re combining research on hihi sperm with a major fundraising effort to try to turn this bird’s fortunes around.

Researchers are studying sperm quality to figure out what contributes to the low breeding success of the hihi, or stitchbird.

A taonga in trouble

The story of hihi is a sadly familiar one for New Zealand. They were widespread across the country’s North Island, but then humans arrived. Forest clearance and introduced mammalian predators were bad news for most of New Zealand’s native wildlife, including hihi. By 1880, hihi had been reduced to just one population on Hauturu (Little Barrier Island).

Over the past 25 years or so, conservation managers and researchers have established six new hihi populations in predator free sanctuary sites around the North Island, and numbers are on the rise, but hihi are not out of the woods yet.

At each site except for Hauturu, hihi rely on supplementary sugar-water feeding. They use the energy from the sugar water to hunt insects – their real food. On Hauturu, they get their sugar from plant nectar, but no other site in New Zealand seems to have the diverse, old growth forest that hihi need.

Catching hihi on Tiritiri Matangi, one of the island sanctuaries where they survive, to get a sperm sample.
Mhairi McCready, CC BY

Experiments have shown that when the supplementary sugar is removed, hihi numbers go into decline. The absence of decent forest isn’t the only problem for this little sugar addict though.

Small populations and dodgy sperm

The hihi’s drastic decrease in numbers after human arrival is known as a population bottleneck. When a species experiences a bottleneck, we typically see a reduction in genetic variation and an increase in mating between relatives (inbreeding).

Inbreeding can negatively affect reproduction and survival. One characteristic that seems particularly sensitive to the negative effects of inbreeding is male fertility.

Inbreeding causes dodgy sperm (and dodgy pollen) across a wide range of mammals, insects and plants. However, no one has ever really looked into how it affects sperm quality in birds.

Hihi sperm seen under a microscope.
Helen Taylor, CC BY

We know that New Zealand’s birds have relatively high rates of hatching failure. We know that hihi egg hatching rates and chick survival are negatively affected by inbreeding. But we don’t know whether this hatching failure is a result of poor male fertility, developmental problems, or a bit of both. That’s where my research comes in.

Studying bird sperm in the wild

I’m looking for links between inbreeding and sperm quality in native New Zealand birds, including the hihi. To measure bird sperm quality, we look at three things: sperm swimming speed, sperm length and the proportion of sperm with abnormalities (two heads/no tail etc.).

Getting this data from wild birds is challenging for a number of reasons.

First, you need to get the sperm. This is actually the easiest part, especially with hihi. Their mating system is so competitive that males are usually jam-packed with sperm during the mating season.

In most bird species (including hihi), males don’t have a penis. They have an opening called a cloaca, just like the female. During mating season, the area around the male’s cloaca swells as it fills up with semen. By gently massaging this swelling, I can cause a small amount of semen to pool on the surface of the cloaca and, voila! I have my sperm sample.

Massaging a male hihi to extract sperm.
Mhairi McCready, CC BY

The next challenge is measuring sperm swimming speed. Everything else can be done back at the lab, but speed has to be measured there and then and sperm have to be kept at a constant temperature, or they die. We need to run a microscope, camera and laptop to film the sperm and measure the speed. And I’m usually on a remote island or in the middle of the bush.

Working in the mobile sperm lab.
Robyn White, CC BY

To overcome these issues, I’ve designed a mobile sperm lab that runs off a small generator so I can take it pretty much anywhere. It houses my sperm speed measuring set up, plus some heat pads to keep anything that touches the sperm at a constant temperature.

The pièce de résistance is my specially designed in-bra sperm sample tube holder, which keeps samples warm against my skin before they get to the microscope.

The great hihi sperm race

In October 2017, I took my mobile sperm lab to four hihi sites: Hauturu, Trititiri Matangi, Bushy Park Sanctuary, and Zealandia.

I collected sperm and DNA samples from 128 males and am currently analysing the data to investigate the connection between sperm quality and inbreeding in this species.

At the same time, we’re attempting to address the major lack of funding for hihi conservation by encouraging people to bet on which of my 128 males will have the fastest sperm.

The ConversationThis innovative fundraiser has grabbed a fair few headlines in New Zealand and overseas, and we’ve seen bets coming in from all over the world. The race runs until April 22, 2018. To get involved, visit www.hihispermrace.nz and place your bets!

Helen Taylor, Research fellow in conservation genetics

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

Wind farms are hardly the bird slayers they’re made out to be. Here’s why


File 20170616 512 12qly6u
The potential to harm local birdlife is often used to oppose wind farm development. But research into how birds die shows wind farms should be the least of our concerns.
from www.shutterstock.com

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

People who oppose wind farms often claim wind turbine blades kill large numbers of birds, often referring to them as “bird choppers”. And claims of dangers to iconic or rare birds, especially raptors, have attracted a lot of attention.

Wind turbine blades do indeed kill birds and bats, but their contribution to total bird deaths is extremely low, as these three studies show.

A 2009 study using US and European data on bird deaths estimated the number of birds killed per unit of power generated by wind, fossil fuel and nuclear power systems.

It concluded:

wind farms and nuclear power stations are responsible each for between 0.3 and 0.4 fatalities per gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity while fossil-fuelled power stations are responsible for about 5.2 fatalities per GWh.

That’s nearly 15 times more. From this, the author estimated:

wind farms killed approximately seven thousand birds in the United States in 2006 but nuclear plants killed about 327,000 and fossil-fuelled power plants 14.5 million.

In other words, for every one bird killed by a wind turbine, nuclear and fossil fuel powered plants killed 2,118 birds.

A Spanish study involved daily inspections of the ground around 20 wind farms with 252 turbines from 2005 to 2008. It found 596 dead birds.

The turbines in the sample had been working for different times during the study period (between 11 and 34 months), with the average annual number of fatalities per turbine being just 1.33. The authors noted this was one of the highest collision rates reported in the world research literature.

Raptor collisions accounted for 36% of total bird deaths (214 deaths), most of which were griffon vultures (138 birds, 23% of total mortality). The study area was in the southernmost area of Spain near Gibraltar, which is a migratory zone for birds from Morocco into Spain.

Perhaps the most comprehensive report was published in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology in 2013 by scientists from Canada’s Environment Canada, Wildlife Research Division.

Their report looked at causes of human-related bird deaths for all of Canada, drawing together data from many diverse sources.

The table below shows selected causes of bird death out of an annual total of 186,429,553 estimated deaths caused by human activity.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Zg2hk/1/

Mark Duchamp, the president of Save the Eagles International is probably the most prominent person to speak out about bird deaths at wind farms. He says:

The average per turbine comes down to 333 to 1,000 deaths annually which is a far cry from the 2-4 birds claimed by the American wind industry or the 400,000 birds a year estimated by the American Bird Conservancy for the whole of the United States, which has about twice as many turbines as Spain.

Such claims from wind farm critics generally allude to massive national conspiracies to cover up the true size of the deaths.

And in Australia?

In Australia in 2006 a proposal for a 52-turbine wind farm plan on Victoria’s south-east coast at Bald Hills (now completed) was overruled by the then federal environment minister Ian Campbell.

He cited concerns about the future of the endangered orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), a migratory bird said to be at risk of extinction within 50 years. The Tarwin Valley Coastal Guardians, an anti wind farm group that had been opposing the proposed development.

Interest groups have regularly cited this endangered bird when trying to halt a range of developments.

These include a chemical storage facility and a boating marina. The proposed Westernport marina in Victoria happened to also be near an important wetland. But a professor in biodiversity and sustainability wrote:

the parrot copped the blame, even though it had not been seen there for 25 years.

Victoria’s planning minister at the time, Rob Hulls, described the Bald Hills decision as blatantly political, arguing the federal conservative government had been lobbied by fossil fuel interests to curtail renewable energy developments. Hulls said there had been:

some historical sightings, and also some potential foraging sites between 10 and 35 kilometres from the Bald Hills wind farm site that may or may not have been used by the orange-bellied parrot.

Perhaps the final word on this topic should go to the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It built a wind turbine at its Bedfordshire headquarters to reduce its carbon emissions (and in doing so, aims to minimise species loss due to climate change). It recognised that wind power is far more beneficial to birds than it is harmful.


The ConversationSimon Chapman and Fiona Crichton’s book, Wind Turbine Syndrome: a communicated disease, will be published by Sydney University Press later this year.

Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

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

Cracked it! A 30-year cold case involving an egg and the mysterious Night Parrot


Leo Joseph, CSIRO; Jeremy Austin, University of Adelaide, and Penny Olsen, Australian National University

Sometimes nature leaves little clues that can be difficult to interpret, so getting things right isn’t always easy.

Consider the case of an egg that was found in northern Australia’s remote Tanami Desert. It was spotted abandoned on the ground among spinifex in the early 1980s.

After being studied by ornithologists, the view was that it may well be an egg of the spinifex-nesting Night Parrot, described by the Smithsonian as one of the world’s most mysterious birds. The chances of finding such a rarity are astronomical.

The bird’s scientific name is Pezoporus occidentalis and it is known in that part of the Northern Territory as Yurrupudpudpa by the local indigenous group, the Eastern Warlpiri.

But was this really the egg of a Night Parrot? There are no confirmed Night Parrot eggs among the extensive collections of the world, so nobody was really sure.

Nevertheless, the possibility drifted loosely into the literature that it was the only known egg of the Night Parrot.

A remarkable bird

The Night Parrot – as the name suggests – is a truly nocturnal parrot, and the only other one is the Kakapo of New Zealand.

This bird of the Australian outback is also extraordinarily elusive, known from fewer than 30 specimens scattered through the world’s museums, despite its range stretching all the way from the Pilbara to northwestern Victoria.

In 2013, the parrot was “rediscovered” after its almost complete disappearance in the early 20th century and despite considerable efforts to prove it was still around.

Naturalist John Young found a tiny population alive and seemingly well, if not in great numbers, in remote western Queensland.

Since then, research has yielded plenty of information about what the birds need for their conservation and management.

So what then of the fate of the Tanami egg find?

For 30 years the egg sat unstudied, first in the South Australian Museum and then in the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, under accession code T2614.

Finally, a team led by one of us (Penny) decided to investigate further, with the results published today in Australian Field Ornithology.

An actual egg of the Night Parrot would be a great prize – not least because knowing of a place where Night Parrots could be shown to have bred would be a useful piece in a jigsaw of the bird’s biology that was still wildly incomplete.

Extracting the DNA

Penny contacted Jeremy Austin at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide. The plan was to extract DNA from dried membranes inside the egg to obtain a DNA sequence that could verify the egg’s origin.

If a DNA sequence could be obtained, then it could be compared with sequences from two Night Parrot specimens that had both been found dead, incredibly enough, in western Queensland in 1990 and 2006. These are lodged in the collection of the Queensland Museum.

It was a simple but good plan, perhaps a little technically exacting to execute, but Jeremy’s expertise carried the day. A DNA sequence was obtained from the mystery egg.

On entering it into databases of DNA sequences of the world’s birds and with a figurative as well as literal holding of breath, the researchers waited for the result.

The DNA sequence turned out to be an excellent match for … a Brown Quail (Synoicus ypsilophorus).

It’s an ex-parrot egg

It was nowhere near a match for the Night Parrot, or indeed any other parrot.

This may have settled the matter, but not quite. Apart from being a rather interesting record of the Brown Quail, one more angle needed pursuing. That was a visit to egg collections held in the research collections of museums, specifically that of the CSIRO’s Australian National Wildlife Collection (ANWC), in Canberra.

The ANWC egg collection has a number of clutches of eggs of Brown Quail as well as several of one of the Night Parrot’s closest relatives, the Eastern Ground Parrot (Pezoporus wallicus).

Eggs (top, left) from the Crested Pigeon from near Mt Hopeless in South Australia and (top, centre) the Eastern Ground Parrot, near Noosa in Queensland and (top, right) near Evans Head in New South Wales. Eggs from the Brown Quail (bottom, left) at Bruny Island in Tasmania and (bottom, left) from near Orange in New South Wales.
Australian National Wildlife Collection, Author provided

The Eastern Ground Parrot, though a different and better-known species, is an ecological and evolutionary equivalent of the Night Parrot but found in coastal heaths. The point is that they are indeed a very closely related species, so their eggs can reasonably be expected to be similar.

All the world’s parrots lay eggs that are white – bleached sand white – and somewhat rounded, not pointed, at one end like a chicken’s egg tends to be.

The egg found in the Tanami Desert was indeed pale, though not bleached sand white, and it was pointed at one end. A scan through the ANWC collection showed that some clutches of Brown Quail eggs are rather pale and whitish but that they never attain that bleached whiteness of a parrot egg. Typically, they are variably speckled brown.

And the shapes of Brown Quail and parrot eggs differ markedly. One end of the quail’s egg is always pointed, just like the Tanami egg.

The value of collections

Though we may with hindsight ponder why the Tanami egg was ever thought to be of a parrot, let alone a Night Parrot, the story is a salutary lesson in the value of research collections held in museums.

They provide the material from which DNA can be extracted and sequenced to build up molecular-level descriptions of the world’s biodiversity. They provide us with robust understanding of what the species of the world and their eggs (or larvae or fruits or seed heads) look like.

Museums are a major repository of the raw data with which we study how life on earth has evolved. Along the way, they can also provide us with answers to tantalising mysteries about rare and little known species.

As for the mysterious Night Parrot, the search goes on for new populations and more details of this elusive bird.


Dr Steve Murphy, who is studying the Night Parrot population in western Queensland, co-authored this article.

The Conversation

Leo Joseph, Research Director and Curator, Australian National Wildlife Collection, CSIRO, Canberra, CSIRO; Jeremy Austin, Deputy Director and ARC Future Fellow, Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, University of Adelaide, and Penny Olsen, Honorary Professor in the Division of Evolution, Ecology and Genetics, Australian National University

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

How the Australian galah got its name in a muddle


Leo Joseph, CSIRO and Jeremy Austin, University of Adelaide

Galahs are the pink and grey cockatoos that are one of the most familiar of all Australian birds. They’ve have been at the centre of a curious debate: what should their scientific name really be?

It’s a tale that spans centuries and continents, and has clues hidden in museums, diaries of 19th century travellers and evolution’s own diary of DNA sequences.

When biologists formally publish a scientific description of a new species, they give it a unique scientific name that is forever linked to a single, preserved specimen in a natural history collection. This specimen is known as the holotype.

The galah’s scientific name is Eolophus roseicapilla. Its holotype was collected in Australia in 1801 by biologists on the Expedition led by France’s Nicolas Baudin and is held in the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, in Paris.

East and west

Much later, Australian ornithologists realised galahs in the continent’s west look very different from galahs in the east.

An eastern galah.
Shutterstock/Chris Ison

Eastern galahs became known as the subspecies Eolophus roseicapilla roseicapilla, the holotype of that name automatically being the original held in Paris because it was assumed to have been collected in the east.

The subspecies in the west was named Eolophus roseicapilla assimilis and that name was also linked to a new holotype, a bird from the west.

A western galah.
Shutterstock/GunnerL

But was the bird collected back in 1801 really from the east? The name roseicapilla means pink or rosy “hair” and so refers to the general pink colour of the species. It does not refer to the dark-pink headed galahs from the west as distinct from the pale-pink almost whitish-headed galahs from the east.

Expedition route

In the late 1980s, Dr Richard Schodde, then the Director of CSIRO’s Australian National Wildlife Collection, realised the route of the Baudin Expedition wouldn’t have passed anywhere near where eastern galahs occurred at that time.

Galahs were originally birds of arid, inland Australia, only expanding into their present, vast range in the early- to mid-20th century.

The biologists of the Baudin Expedition were more likely to have encountered galahs around Shark Bay in Western Australia. The holotype was more likely a western bird, Schodde reasoned.

Schodde further reasoned that if the holotype in Paris was a western galah, its name, Eolophus roseicapilla roseicapilla, actually belonged to the western galahs. This left the eastern galahs, one of the most familiar birds in all of Australia, without a scientific name.

Galahs in flight in outback Queensland.
Shutterstock/John Carnemolla

Schodde named them Eolophus roseicapilla albiceps and designated a holotype that was collected in Canberra and is held in CSIRO’s Australian National Wildlife Collection.

His detective work at that time didn’t settle the debate. Simple examination of the holotype in Paris should reveal whether it is an eastern or western bird. But the specimen is more than 200 years old and not in great shape.

Nevertheless, two recent papers published by Australian ornithologists, including a further one by Richard Schodde, and another by our team, have argued that despite the specimen’s condition it is identifiable as a western bird.

What the DNA says

Enter DNA to solve the mystery. Australian natural history collections contain hundreds of specimens of galahs from across their modern range.

If these specimens show detectable genetic differences between eastern and western subspecies, and if we can get a DNA result from the Paris holotype, we could find out whether it belongs to the eastern or western group.

With a colleague in Germany, Thomas Wilke, we mapped genetic diversity of galahs from 192 museum specimens. We found that galahs were likely isolated during the last several hundred thousand years into western, northern and eastern subpopulations.

A couple of western galahs.
Shutterstock/David Steele

Even today, with the modern range expansions, any galah can be assigned to either of these three genetic groups regardless of where it occurs.

Colleagues at the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle kindly allowed us to snip some skin from the toe pads of the holotype. One of us (Jeremy Austin) obtained DNA sequences and dropped them into our analysis.

Et voila! The Paris holotype is identical in its DNA sequence to the most common variant found in western birds.

Schodde’s theory holds. Galahs in the west should indeed be named Eolophus roseicapilla roseicapilla and those in the east Eolophus roseicapilla albiceps.

There is a third, northern variant but it is not part of our story here.

And what of the original scientific name for the western galahs, Eolophus roseicapilla assimilis? That name is not currently necessary but if anyone ever finds differences within the western birds, it may still be needed.

The Conversation

Leo Joseph, Research Director and Curator, Australian National Wildlife Collection, CSIRO and Jeremy Austin, Deputy Director and ARC Future Fellow, Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, University of Adelaide

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

The best places to see Australian birds this summer


Rochelle Steven, Griffith University

So, you’re looking for something to do this holiday season that is outdoors but close to home and won’t cost the earth (literally and figuratively). But you want something more than the average stroll through a national park.

Did you know there are over 300 areas in Australia identified for having populations of birds that are significant in terms of their ecology and conservation?

The Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) network was established in Australia in 2009 by then Birds Australia (now BirdLife Australia). Australia joined the program in the wake of multiple other countries and regions that have joined BirdLife International in their quest to draw attention to key areas for bird conservation globally.

Sites are assessed for potential inclusion in the network based on the presence of trigger bird species at threshold population numbers.

About 50% of the Australian network overlaps with protected areas (e.g. national parks), and the remaining 50% falls in private and other public lands. Many are accessible for visitors in search of rewarding birdwatching (aka birding) experiences.

If you haven’t discovered the enjoyment to be had in picking up a pair of binoculars and challenging yourself to identify the birds you find in your view, you are missing out!

Australia has some of the most amazing birds in the world. Tim Low has written about the marvels of Aussie birds in his book Where Song Began (2014).

A Satin Bowerbird in Queensland.

There are books that have been published recently outlining numerous spots worth a visit (e.g. Finding Australian Birds by Dolby and Clarke; Best 100 Birdwatching Sites in Australia by Taylor).

Many sites can be found within a couple of hours drive or less of the big cities. You can go birding independently, or if you really want a fruitful day, you can hire a local bird tour guide who will happily share their skills and knowledge of birds in your area.

Bird tour operators can be found in all capital cities, and recent research published in PLOS ONE shows they visit important bird areas frequently during their tours. Without further ado, here is your guide to the best places for birding close to some of our main cities.

Sydney

Greater Blue Mountains and Richmond Woodlands IBAs provide the chances to see species like the Regent Honeyeater or Flame Robin. Other trigger species here include: Swift Parrot, Yellow-faced Honeyeater, Pilotbird, Rockwarbler and Diamond Firetail.

Diamond Firetail
David Cook/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Melbourne

Werribee and Avalon IBA is arguably Australia’s most popular birding destination among domestic birders. Access to the main birding site (the Western Treatment Plant) site requires a permit from Melbourne Water.

Cheetham and Altona IBA is open access via Altona Coastal Park and Point Cook Coastal Park. Both areas are winners for waterbirds and shorebirds.

Many shorebirds arrive in Melbourne’s wetlands from the Northern Hemisphere.
Rochelle Steven

Brisbane and Gold Coast

Moreton Bay and Pumicestone Passage IBA covers the extent of the coast from north Brisbane down the Gold Coast Broadwater. This IBA is an important site for migratory shorebirds that rest here after their epic journey flying from Alaska or Siberia.

Heading inland the Scenic Rim IBA overlaps with Lamington National Park and visitors to this IBA can be treated to excellent views of the Satin and Regent Bowerbirds. You might even get to see the Albert’s Lyrebird scurrying through the rainforest floor.

Satin Bowerbird
Rochelle Steven

Cairns

Daintree and the Coastal Wet Tropics IBAs provide rainforest experiences like no other. The list of trigger species for these IBAs is very long, but on the top is the Southern Cassowary.

You don’t see the cassowary, but the cassowary sees you.
Madeleine Deaton/Flickr, CC BY

Darwin

Alligator River Floodplains IBA and Adelaide and Mary River Floodplains IBA comprise the extensive river networks east of Darwin. Kakadu National Park overlaps with the former IBA, and Fogg Dam with the latter. At the very least, a trip to Fogg Dam is a must where Magpie Geese and Wandering Whistling Ducks gather in large flocks, giving awesome views.

Magpie geese congregate in huge flocks in the Top End.
Ewen Bell/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Perth

Bindoon-Julimar and Peel-Harvey Estuary IBAs overlap with numerous nature reserves, providing good access for day trippers. Shorebirds and ducks are in good numbers at Peel-Harvey, whereas Bindoon-Julimar provides the chance to see some woodland species such as Red-capped Parrot and Western Spinebill.

The Western Spinebill has a sweet tooth and feeds on nectar.
Julia Gross/Flickr, CC BY

Hobart

Bruny Island and South-east Tasmania IBAs are some of the best places to see birds found in Tasmania and nowhere else. The Forty-spotted Pardalote is a little bird that attracts big attention from birders, together with the Tasmanian Native-hen.

Spot the Forty-spotted Pardalote in southern Tasmania.
Francesco Veronesi/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Adelaide

There are fewer than 50 orange-bellied parrots in the wild: you’ll be lucky to see one.
Ron Knight/Flickr, CC BY

Lakes Alexandrina and Albert IBA is a great spot to see another sought after bird, the Cape Barren Goose. Large flocks of Australian Shelduck are also on offer here. If you are truly lucky you will see the Orange-bellied Parrot, but they are on the decline so be quick.

Kangaroo Island IBA is more than likely a weekend trip, but well worth it to see the waterbirds and shorebirds on offer. The Western Whipbird is an often heard but rarely seen resident and you have a good chance of seeing the Purple-gaped Honeyeater here also.

If you would like to take your birding to the next level, and get involved in bird conservation visit www.birdlife.org.au to find out more.

The Conversation

Rochelle Steven, Researcher – Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith School of Environment, Griffith University, Griffith University

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

Stop the miners: you can help Australia’s birds by planting native gardens


Kathryn Teare Ada Lambert, University of New England

Some Australian birds are pushing out other species, and even damaging trees. Noisy and bell miners are two of Australia’s most aggressive bird species. Found throughout eastern Australia, in recent years their numbers have increased at the expense of our smaller birds.

Both species are spreading to new areas, largely due to human destruction of habitat. Noisy miners are able to invade areas where habitat has been modified, particularly gardens.

Bell miners, meanwhile, can invade areas that have invasions of weeds in the understorey such as blackberry and lantana that they use for nesting.

The good news is we can help stop the spread of these birds, by putting native plants in our gardens.

Masked mobster: noisy miners are increasing in number and spreading at the expense of smaller birds.
Kathryn Lambert, Author provided

Good birds gone bad

Both species of these miners (genus Manorina) have been found to reduce bird diversity through their aggressive behaviour, and have been associated with eucalypt dieback.

Human disturbance has been linked to increasing numbers of noisy miners. One study in the box-ironbark forests of southeast Australia, found that noisy miners an move into areas of smaller fragments and unhealthy trees.

They then chase away other birds, reducing the number of species and potentially having knock-on effects on ecosystems. The problem is so serious that noisy miners are listed as a national threatening process.

More research is needed to find out why bell miners are becoming more common. But our research has found that bell miners show similar behaviour to noisy miners. They have a distinctive call that travels for tens of metres through the forest.

Bell miners cause Bell Miner Associated Dieback in trees. It is thought that their feeding and breeding behaviours lead to the death of eucalypts on the east coast of Australia. They also take over habitat that would be used by other birds.

Bell miners are known for their loud calls.
Sascha Wenninger/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Are the birds to blame?

Where miners are normally found in lower numbers, disturbances by people can tip the balance in their favour. This includes increasing noise levels, removing corridors of connecting native vegetation, creating gardens with exotic plants, building cities, houses, parks, logging and introducing invasive species that create thick understories.

These disturbances increase the habitat available for these two species, allowing them to increase in number and drive out the smaller birds that compete for their food sources.

Noisy miners particularly favour open areas that don’t have thickets of shrubs of smaller trees underneath the canopy. Conversely, bell miners prefer thick understoreys, particularly those create by introduced weeds such as lantana.

So if we are causing these birds to increase in number, how can we reduce their numbers and re-create the original habitat where all species could co-exist?

Build a bird-friendly garden

You need to create a multi-layered habitat of ground covers, small and medium shrubs, and trees that provide food and shelter locations all year for a variety of species.

These plant species need to have diverse structures, and should be close together to form dense, protective thickets, including climbers within medium-to-tall shrubs and trees, nectar-bearing and seed-bearing plants. Mulch can also encourage insect life for insectivorous birds.

Plants should also be local species that grow naturally in the area and are suited to the climate. Native birds that live in the area will then visit your garden as another food source in their territory.

A bird-friendly garden.
Karthryn Lambert, Author provided

Reducing weeds in your garden and neighbouring bushland (many weeds are derived from garden plants) can help native species. General natives can also be planted if you can’t find local natives in your local nursery.

Even in gardens where noisy miners dominate, smaller birds can survive in a dense understorey.

Meanwhile, a thin midstorey with fewer leaves may help to reduce bell miner abundance, as suggested by our recent study near Kyogle, New South Wales.

You should also consider the timing of flower and fruit production, to ensure that there is always food available for birds. You should also remove fruiting plants such as cotoneaster and blackberry that attract predators such as currawongs, to help reduce predation on smaller bird species.

Using chemical-free weed and pest control and mulching garden waste can also increase the food available for birds.

Lawns can also be replaced with native grasses that produce seed to attract finches and other seed-eaters such as crimson rosellas. Birds also need fresh water, which you can provide with a pond or bird bath. This should be placed within vegetation to ensure birds feel safe from predators.

Why are native gardens important?

Local biodiversity can be maintained by native gardens, ensuring long-term ecological sustainability. Small birds and other wildlife benefit from planting native species.

Many species are negatively affected by the current structure of gardens such as lawns, few scattered trees and the placement of concrete and houses without any access to nesting habitat.

Gardening in Australia needs to be changed to favour more native species and provide structure on a landscape scale that includes a variety of gardens.

The Conversation

Kathryn Teare Ada Lambert, Research Associate, University of New England

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