A rare and endangered species of parrot in New Zealand appears to have headed for the mountains to avoid interference from people, researchers posit in a new paper.
The kea is the world's only alpine parrot species, but the paper suggests this adaptation may not have naturally occurred.
Researchers analyzed the bird's whole-genome data, alongside the genome of its forest-favouring sister species the kākā, and found keas may not be naturally inclined to higher elevations.
It's now believed they migrated upwards to avoid conflict. Scientists say this may give the kea a competitive edge against threats like climate change and habitat destruction, but species survival is not guaranteed.
"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 kākā?" co-author Associate Professor Michael Knapp of the University of Otago said in a statement.
Right now, the kea is faring well in the mountains, an adaptation facilitated by its personality, which is characterized by intelligence and inquisitiveness.
File photo of a kea. (Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 2.0)
"Physiologically, there is nothing to stop the kea from surviving at lower altitudes," Knapp said via the Guardian.
"It’s a generalist. It will survive from sea level to alpine.”
More study is needed to confirm the real reason keas headed for the hills, but longstanding conflicts between the parrots and farmers lend credence to the hypothesis.
Keas are known to terrorize and kill sheep. For more than a century, farmers placed bounties of ten shillings a beak for their carcasses, prompting a widespread cull that decimated the species.
It became a protected species in 1986.
Scientists say their recent findings are important because they will shed light on kea evolution, and the methods used can be applied to other species.
"We are now able to start looking into how exactly species have adapted to their environment on a molecular level, and that may help us to support conservation efforts with much more informative genetic data than was previously possible," Knapp said.
"We think that it is an exciting prospect which we hope will help preserve what is left of the iconic New Zealand bird fauna."