New Zealand’s rare, highly endangered alpine parrots may have headed for the mountains to avoid people – and researchers say their adaptability could help them survive the climate crisis.

The kea is considered the only alpine parrot in the world. But scientists analysing DNA sequencing and fossil records have found kea were once present in other parts of the country.

The news is something of a knock to the kea’s internationally unique “alpine parrot” status. But it may also be a saving grace for the endangered bird, making it more capable of surviving habitat loss or increased competition.

Being an alpine specialist can make species like kea particularly vulnerable to the climate crisis – as the planet heats, alpine environments retreat, more competitive lowland species push in, and species that adapted specifically to alpine conditions can be threatened with extinction. Research from Europe, for example, has found up to 22% of species studied on glaciers in the Italian Alps would disappear from the area once the glaciers had gone.

University of Otago researchers used whole genome data of the kea, and a similar, forest-adapted ‘sister species’ of native parrot, the kākā. They were looking to identify the genomic differences associated with the two birds’ habitat specialisations – but did not find major genomic differences associated with high-altitude life. They conclude that the kea may instead be a generalist, which was “using the alpine zone to – for example – avoid lower lying anthropogenic landscapes”.

Associate professor Michael Knapp, one of the paper’s lead authors, said that “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.”

He said that idea that kea had moved specifically to avoid people was still speculative, and there wasn’t enough information to establish any causative relationship between human settlements expanding and the birds’ adoption of mountainous zones. But given kea were physically able to survive in a variety of habitats, it made sense to examine what the primary differences were. “What distinguishes the alpine habitat from the New Zealand lower-lying open habitats? [There] are usually heavily anthropogenic influences, agriculture going on and so on.”

Kea have certainly come into conflict with New Zealand’s human populations before. They are a particularly intelligent, mischievous and inquisitive species, known for their love of attacking rubber windshield wipers on the cars of mountain visitors.

Over the years, they’ve made headlines for rummaging through tourist bags, stealing wallets and in one case, making off with an unlucky Scottish tourist’s passport. But among farmers, they acquired notoriety for attacking and occasionally killing sheep. The attacks so incensed early New Zealand sheep farmers that the government put up a ‘bounty’ on kea beaks – a policy that continued for about 100 years, until 1970. Analysis of government bounty payments found that an estimated 100,000 kea were killed for bounty. According to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, kea today are nationally endangered, with only around 3000-7000 birds remaining in the country.

Those culls, Knapp said, would have put “huge pressure on the birds”.

“Again, is that what got them completely out of the lower zone, that they would just be shot if they were anywhere near humans?” Knapp asked. “These are all potential factors …[but] more information is needed to really make that connection.”

Researchers speculated that the kea’s adaptation to alpine environments may have been helped along by its personality. The change in habitat, they wrote, “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”.

If global heating dramatically shrinks alpine habitats for kea, they could return to the forests – a move that would push them back into competition with kākā. When New Zealand passed a motion to declare a climate emergency in 2020, it specifically cited the “alarming trend in species decline and global biodiversity” including the decline in New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity. But at present, New Zealand is struggling to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and is not on track to meet its obligations under the Paris climate accords – or to meet its own goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

The paper was published in the journal of Molecular Ecology.



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