Story at a glance
- Kea are highly endangered alpine parrots native to New Zealand and often found in the mountains.
- Research suggests that their choice of habitat may have been influenced by the threat of human activity.
- The new study reveals that kea are no better adapted to alpine habitats than related birds.
The urge to take off and live out the rest of your life as a hermit in the mountains is a well-documented storyline that, it turns out, isn’t limited to humans. The only alpine parrot in the world, a species known as the New Zealand kea, has fled to the mountains, according to researchers, who speculated why in a paper published earlier this month.
Looking at its "forest adapted sister species, the kākā," researchers found that the split in the two birds’ evolutionary journeys was not due to natural selection for genetic alpine adaptations.
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“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," Michael Knapp, one of the paper’s lead authors and an associate professor at the University of Otago, told The Guardian.
So why are they in the mountains? One possible explanation is people.
“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," he told The Guardian.
Agriculture might seem harmless enough, but hunting (especially in response to keas interfering with human property) led the government to put a bounty on the birds' beaks for about a century. By the time this practice ended in 1970, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation estimated that about 100,000 kea were killed — leaving just 3,000 to 7,000 in the country.
“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.”
The findings also raise concerns that the kea, which is no better adapted to the mountain terrain than the kaka, is even more threatened by climate change than previously thought. Can a bird without a history of evolutionary adaptation change fast enough to survive global warming?
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