Iconic New Caledonian birds join the research collection

By Melissa Lyne April 30th, 2019

The Australian National Wildlife Collection holds a significant collection of fauna and flora of New Guinea and the Pacific islands, critical to understanding the evolution of species in Australia and the wider Pacific. The Collection now includes bird specimens from New Caledonia, including the iconic Kagu.
bird

The iconic Kagu. Image: Flickr/George Chapman

WHEN asked at customs, ‘do you have anything to declare?’ you might offer a small wooden ornament or a sample of food for inspection. Perhaps you say you have nothing, and then wait as officials comb through your luggage.

Every now and then, someone holds things up. In April this year, Alex Drew’s overseas haul did just that— a large esky with 53 exotic birds. Dead ones.

But he, and the animals, made it through smoothly. Drew is a research technician who curates and conserves the Australian National Wildlife Collection (ANWC), one of CSIRO’s major national natural history collections. He had all the necessary permits to carry the animals with him, though it was a long and intense process to get to that point.

“As you might expect, Australian Customs and Border Force are very particular about imports of biological material,” says Drew.

And this episode heralded a particularly new and exciting time for biodiversity science.

Why birds?

The fauna and flora of New Guinea and the Pacific islands are critical to understanding the evolution of species in Australia and the wider Pacific.

Millions of years ago the Australian continent became isolated. New Guinea is a much younger land mass. And the Pacific islands have diverse geological histories. Combine all these factors and the result is a region with an exceptional number of endemic species, that is, species found nowhere else on Earth.

The Australian National Wildlife Collection includes several biological collections. They are repositories of specimens used in biodiversity research.

The Collection is just one of four major national collections based in Canberra. Its focus is terrestrial vertebrates – birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.

Collection director Dr Leo Joseph explains that the specimens are mainly from Australia and also Papua New Guinea, an Australian territory when the collection started in the late 1960s.

The Australian National Wildlife Collection is geographically extensive, sampling the common and everyday species as well as the exotic.

“We hold the Southern Hemisphere’s most comprehensive collection of birds from the Australian territories: more than 50,000,” Joseph says. “This includes spectacular birds-of-paradise as well as some extinct species.”

New Caledonia is a Pacific island group and overseas territory of France, home to many unique birds. Its most iconic native bird is the enigmatic but endangered Kagu, a kind of terrestrial rainforest heron whose closest living relative is the Sunbittern in South America.

“New Caledonia is one of the world’s most interesting places in terms of plant and animal evolution,” Joseph says.

“There are plants and birds there that have deep and distant evolutionary connections to the rest of the world. Some are much more closely related to groups in Australia.”

The Collection has not housed a single species from New Caledonia—until now.

The birds in the esky were from New Caledonia. Among the 13 different species within, there were more than a dozen Kagus as well as the New Caledonian Crow and New Caledonian Friarbird.

Why now?

Parc Zoologique et Forrestier Michel Corbasson is a botanical garden and zoo where native New Caledonian animals, mostly birds, are on display. The zoo typically freezes and keeps the animals after they die. They are then used by scientists for a variety of research purposes.

Almudena Lorenzo, the zoo director, was instrumental in facilitating the new collaboration with CSIRO.

bird singing in among branches

A Rufous whistler (Pachycephala rufiventris) in the New Caledonian dry forest. Image: Almudena Lorenzo, PZFMC.

After a French delegation visited Australia earlier this year, hopes of new science and education initiatives grew between the two countries. Two new memoranda of understanding (MOU) were signed. At the same time, Joseph and Lorenzo secured the necessary permits to enable Drew to bring the precious bird specimens to Australia.

Nick Pagett, acting director of CSIRO Global, says France and Australia have long had overlapping interests, particularly in relation to the Pacific.

“There’s always opportunity to do more collaboration in areas of mutual interest,” he says. “And this can bring benefits to researchers, industry and the public in both countries.”

bird in a nest

A green turtledove. Image: Almudena Lorenzo, PZFMC.

Lorenzo agrees. “Some of the naturalised animals will come back to New Caledonia for educational projects,” she says. “Which will focus on increasing a local awareness of the richness of our natural heritage.”

She points to New Caledonia’s unique biodiversity—13 of the world’s 18 Araucaria pine species are endemic to the region. And across its 19,000km² territory there are more than 130 species of lizard (Diplodactylidae geckos and skinks), almost all of which are also endemic to New Caledonia.

“That’s four percent of all species for these groups, which is incredible for such a small piece of land,” Lorenzo says. “But it’s a big responsibility too.”

Curating the collection

Drew spent a week in Noumea preparing the birds for transport to Australia. He tagged each specimen and recorded its weight, age, sex and reproductive condition. A small sample of muscle from each was also removed and preserved.

Drew says at the ANWC, there is always excitement when a new collection of specimens arrives.

“There’s a surge of activity,” Drew says. “Preparation staff examine the material, making decisions as to how we’ll prepare each one.”

“Different techniques allow for different research possibilities.”

bird being prepared as specimen with scissors and tape nearby

The process of preparing a specimen, here a Sacred Kingfisher, for being transported back to Australia. An ANWC number is attached to the specimen so that data such as its weight and tissue samples can be assigned uniquely to that specimen.

Some whole animals are dried as study skins, some are kept whole in alcohol. There are skeletal specimens where the bones are cleaned and preserved, as well as nests and eggs.

“We also have wildlife sounds, and collections of parasites that live on and in vertebrates,” adds Joseph.

And there is a deep-frozen tissue bank, which is accessed for genetic research projects around the world.

dead green bird with red plummage on its head and tail, tagged for sepcimen

Red-throated Parrotfinch (Erythrura psittacea) is endemic to New Caledonia. It is related to the Blue-faced Parrotfinch of FNQ, and the Gouldian Finch.

“The footprint of a species’ evolution can be read in its DNA,” explains Joseph. “Combining what a species looks like externally with what we can learn through DNA about its evolutionary history fills out our understanding.”

“Ours is the most comprehensive tissue collection for Australian birds in the world. And it’s now enriched with New Caledonian material.”

How is the collection used?

The Australian National Wildlife Collection was built using systematically planned surveys. The foundation curator and director, Dr Richard Schodde OAM, led decades of flora and fauna surveys. These helped establish Kakadu National Park. The work also contributed to the listing of Australia’s first World Heritage Site (northeast Queensland wet tropics).

The collection is now mainly used for research aimed at understanding the evolution of Australia’s fauna, where biodiversity occurs, and how distributions of species are changing in response to environmental change.

The French connection

“France is a high-performing country in many areas of science,” says Pagett.

He adds that the ANWC is just one of many foci between Australia and France, who have diverse collaborations across marine research, biodiversity, climate adaptation, biomedical imaging, earth sciences, energy and cybersecurity. Upcoming collaborations will be in aerospace, Earth observation and manufacturing.

“The MOUs help us elevate strategic partnerships and open up new areas and mechanisms for collaboration between our researchers,” says Pagett.

Joseph is excited about Australia and France working together to build a better understanding of the Pacific region evolutionary history.

“These new partnerships help us better appreciate how rich our world is and how important our responsibility is to care for it,” he says.

Lorenzo agrees. “I hope we will know and be proud of what we have here because ‘we only protect what we love, and we only love what we know’.”


And find out more about perching birds and the latest research which suggests they originated in Australia, in PNAS.

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