Evolutionary approaches to practical conservation
Introduced predators have wrought havoc on native species worldwide. Recently, we discovered that introduced sugar gliders are killing from 60-100% of female endangered, migratory, swift parrots in their nest hollows at their breeding sites in Tasmania. Many migratory birds are suffering similarly severe declines across the globe, in most cases due to human-induced pressures such as altered landscapes, hunting and introduced predators. Our discovery of the major impact of sugar gliders on migratory swift parrots may be in the nick of time to save these birds from extinction.
Using his background as an evolutionary biologist Professor Rob Heinsohn has been turning his attention to the plight of endangered parrots. His approach to the swift parrot problem makes use of evolutionary theory and cutting edge tools in conservation biology to evaluate the impact of sugar gliders and the best management options. His approach embraces the principle of ‘evolutionarily enlightened management’ and is highly novel because it seeks practical solutions while also exploring the evolutionary impact on species where one sex is targeted by predators leaving (in this case) a badly skewed male-biased sex ratio.
Working with major support from the Australian Research Council, Heinsohn’s team comprises three post-doctoral researchers all dedicated to solving a practical conservation issue faced by swift parrots. Dejan Stojanovic, who discovered the dire impact of sugar gliders, is documenting the extent of the problem and experimenting with ways to remove them from key swift parrot breeding habitat. Making it even more difficult, swift parrots breed in entirely different regions each year depending on where the eucalypts are flowering. Matt Webb has the unenviable task of surveying vast tracts of eastern Tasmania to establish where they go to breed each year. Debbie Saunders is developing cutting edge techniques for radio-tracking these tiny parrots as they migrate across Bass Strait each year and disappear into over a million square kilometres in south-eastern mainland Australia.