How Can a Species’ Behavior Inform Its Conservation?

Bernard Spragg, via Flickr.  Public domain.

Kea.

Source: Bernard Spragg, via Flickr. Public domain.

Conservation involves more than just setting aside land for an endangered species. Understanding how an animal thinks, behaves, and interacts with its environment is increasingly recognized as crucial for protecting a species.

For instance, when northern quolls in Australia started feeding on invasive — and toxic — cane toads, researchers used induced taste aversion training to teach them to avoid the toads in the future. For other conservation efforts, captive-bred animals have been given antipredator training before their release to the wild.

But when it comes to a mountain parrot called the kea (Nestor notabilis), research from captive studies has largely been overlooked in attempts to protect it in its native New Zealand.

“It was clear that much of my and other researchers’ work on kea behavior and cognition could also be viewed through a broader lens and applied to generate ideas on how to better conserve the species, ”says Amalia Bastos of the University of California, San Diego.

In a new reviewBastos, along with Ximena Nelson and Alex Taylor, outlined the threats facing kea and how research on captive kea could contribute to saving the birds in the wild.

Curiosity Killed the Kea

Kea are known for their curiosity and intelligence. Several factors may have contributed to the evolution of complex cognitive abilities in kea: They thrive in the harsh mountains of New Zealand, where temperatures can be extreme and food is hard to find; they have a highly variable and seasonal diet, eating over 200 types of food in the wild; and they are highly social and show fission-fusion dynamics in which birds move within and between large groups.

Paul Reynolds, via Wikimedia Commons.  Distributed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Source: Paul Reynolds, via Wikimedia Commons. Distributed under a CC BY 2.0 license.

Decades of study, mostly with captive birds, have revealed kea are capable of performing a range of cognitive feats that rival the abilities of apes. Bastos’ recent work with kea has shown that they are able to keep track of and predict the trajectories of hidden objects and make decisions about uncertain events by thinking about them probabilistically. She has also described how individual kea can innovate tools (covered in this post).

Unfortunately, this playful and inquisitive nature has put kea in danger in areas where they live near humans. Kea readily approach and interact with human-made objects in the environmentwhich can lead to ingestion of unhealthy or toxic substances, vehicle collisions, electrocutions, and lead poisoning.

However, the greatest threat to kea — and New Zealand wildlife and ecosystems in general — are invasive predators, such as stoats, rats, and possums. These predators can eat kea eggs and chicks and injure or kill adults in their underground nesting burrows.

Bastos says that New Zealand is attempting to reduce the number of invasive predators in two main ways: through the use of physical traps to catch and destroy individual animals and through the use of poison baits that are dropped over large areas of protected habitats.

“Both these strategies are problematic for kea, who are curious by nature and interact with these human-made objects,” she says. “Kea can get injured or killed by traps and some kea die from the poison bait meant for invasive predators.”

Bernard Spragg, via Flickr.  Public domain.

Source: Bernard Spragg, via Flickr. Public domain.

From the Lab to the Wild

Although kea in the wild face many challenges, captive studies on their behavior and cognition might be used to inform conservation measures.

For instance, ongoing research is investigating how to avoid kea by-kill from aerially dropped poison baits meant for invasive predators. As a first step, Bastos’s colleagues are looking into using induced taste aversion to teach wild kea to avoid the poison baits.

Another promising avenue, according to Bastos, comes from a recent study showing that kea don’t understand screens. They interpret physical events on-screen in the same way they do real events and perceive real and virtual stimuli as equivalent and continuous. This information could be harnessed to the advantage of people and wild kea, says Bastos.

“We could use screens out in the wild to display scenes that attract kea and place them so as to keep kea away from human settlements or teach them about human dangers such as oncoming traffic,” she says. “There is great potential power in merging technology and cognition in this way, which could help keep kea safe in the wild.”

John, via Wikimedia Commons.  Distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Source: John, via Wikimedia Commons. Distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Before these ideas go into practice, more research is necessary to figure out exactly what kea can learn from screens, whether they might eventually learn to distinguish virtual and real scenes given enough experience with screens, and whether wild kea might react any differently to screens than captive kea.

“Overall, there is a lot more we need to learn about kea cognition and behavior before we can apply our knowledge from laboratory settings to wild populations,” Bastos says.

But she and her colleagues are hopeful that a better understanding of kea intelligence will lead to testing and piloting of validated strategies in both captive and wild settings and offer valuable insights for conservation of these unique and charismatic birds.

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