Research aids kea conservation

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.
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 scientists say.

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 said.


Kea
• Protected species.
• Rated as one of the most intelligent birds in the world.
• 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 forest.
• Females lay two to four eggs.
• Breeding season from July to January.


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