University of Otago scientists Dr Bruce Robertson (left) and Dr Nicolas Dussex feed a kea at Dunedin's Botanic Garden this week. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.
New genetic research will help guide the conservation of New
Zealand's most inquisitive bird, the kea, University of Otago
Nationally endangered, keas have a population of fewer than
5000 that is in decline due to predation by pests such as
rats, mice and stoats.
One of the problems faced by those trying to conserve birds
such as kea was whether their different populations needed to
be treated as separate entities.
The research by Dr Nicholas Dussex, for his PhD, found the
genetic variation in kea populations was not the result of
human-induced population decline, as first thought.
Instead, it was due to natural recolonisation of the alpine
mountains following the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago.
''The structure is surprising, as kea fly quite a bit.''
It meant kea populations did not need to be managed
separately, he said.
''This population structure is relatively recent on the
evolutionary time-scale, thus allowing conservation managers
to move birds between populations as part of any conservation
attempts to reverse the kea's ongoing decline.''
A paper, co-authored by Dr Dussex, zoology senior lecturer Dr
Bruce Robertson and Dr Daniel Wegmann, on the study has been
published in science journal Molecular Ecology.
The research team sampled genetic material from 473 kea
living along the Southern Alps.
Department of Conservation technical adviser Bruce McKinlay
said the struggle to find the right population to manage
would be made easier thanks to this research.
It was now clear the populations of kea were genetically
similar, which gave those involved in their conservation
clarity around the scale needed to manage the population, he
• Protected species.
• Rated as one of the most intelligent birds in the
• Size of the wild population estimated at 1000-5000.
• Grow up to 50cm long.
• Mostly vegetarian, but also enjoy grubs and insects.
• Nests are usually found among boulders in high-altitude
• Females lay two to four eggs.
• Breeding season from July to January.