Scientists studying the kea, a rare and endangered species of alpine parrot native to New Zealand, have discovered that the bird once lived at lower altitudes, not merely in the mountains, leading them to speculate that it might have relocated to avoid people.
The bird is notorious in the country for its acrimonious relationship with humans and is known for attacking rubber windscreen wipers on cars, rifling through tourist’s bags to steal wallets and passports and even picking on sheep to the fury of farmers.
Only around 3,000-7,000 of their number continue to live in the wilds of New Zealand, according to Canberra’s Department of Conservation.
But the discovery by researchers from the University of Otago, studying the kea’s DNA sequencing and fossil records and publishing their findings in the academic journal Molecular Ecology, suggests they have a talent for adaptability that bodes well for their chance of surviving the climate crisis.
Global warming is forecast to have a devastating impact on alpine environments and drive its inhabitants into lowland areas where they will face greater vulnerability to predators and increased competition for food, upping their risk of extinction.
An estimated 22 per cent of species will disappear from the Italian Alps if current trends, according to one study cited by The Guardian.
But the revelation about the kea indicates new hope for the species.
“Physiologically, there is nothing to stop the kea from surviving at lower altitudes. It’s a generalist. It will survive from sea level to alpine,” said associate Professor Michael Knapps, one of the lead authors of the study, which compared the bird’s genomes with those of the kaka, its sister species.
“If kea use the alpine zone as a retreat from human activity, then what other options do they have if the alpine zone disappears? Will they increase their use of forest habitat, potentially increasing competition with kaka?” he asks in the report.
Professor Knapps said the theory that the kea had shifted to the highlands to avoid human settlements was purely speculative at this point but could be proved if more data were available.
He suggested that culling had placed “huge pressure on the birds” but that “more information is needed to really make that connection”.
But his team feel the olive green parrot’s distinctive personality indicates that such a conscious decision is possible, writing that the shift “may have facilitated - or have been facilitated by - the evolution of the kea’s unique behavioural repertoire, which includes high inquisitiveness, learning and problem-solving abilities”.
Co-author Denise Martini, a PhD student in the university’s Department of Anatomy, said the study is “barely scraping the tip of the iceberg” of what is still to be learned about the habits of the kea and kaka.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to conservation decisions we are often forced to invest in short-term ‘emergency’ solutions, and it is rare for researchers and conservation practitioners to have the opportunity to really look into prospects for the long-term survival of a species,” she said.
“Making those kinds of predictions in a changing environment requires the sort of in-depth knowledge that is simply not available for a lot of species at immediate risk of extinction. I am hopeful that with the help of new emerging technologies and increased public awareness on environmental matters we will be able to get past the limitations we have now.”