News Article | May 11, 2017
Peter Fretwell has never been to the remote islands off the coasts of Argentina and New Zealand where albatross make their homes, but he has seen hundreds of them. Well, he’s seen hundreds of tiny, pixelated white dots against a greenish-brown background on a computer screen. That’s how albatross—white seabirds known for their wingspans—appear in images taken by a high-resolution camera on a satellite orbiting Earth. Fretwell, along with his colleagues at the British Antarctic Survey and the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, used these images to scour the landscape of distant islands from the comfort of office desks and count albatross one by one to create a census from space. “It’s a strange way of birdwatching,” Fretwell said. Fretwell said their recent survey marked the first time that satellites have been used to count individual birds from space. The research, described in a paper in Ibis, targeted two threatened species of albatross: wandering albatross on South Georgia, an island located southeast of Argentina, and northern royal albatross, found on the Chatham Islands to the east of New Zealand’s mainland. Recommended: Trump Wants ‘Goddamned Steam,’ Not Digital Catapults on Aircraft Carriers Researchers have gone and studied these birds the old-fashioned away, showing up on boats and wandering through the flora to observe the albatross with their own eyes, or chartering low-flying planes to take aerial photographs. The work can be labor-intensive and expensive. Fretwell described a colleague who spends the Antarctic summers sailing to the islands on a yacht, battling rough seas, and scaling cliffs to catch a glimpse of the birds. Counting albatross from space, Fretwell said, requires much less effort and doesn’t risk disturbing the animals. The Chatham Islands are especially difficult to access, and there were no recent population estimates of northern royal albatross there before the satellite survey, Fretwell said. Fretwell and the team purchased the imagery from WorldView-3, a commercial U.S. satellite that produces views akin to aerial pictures on Google Maps. Fretwell and the team split up the images into grids, tallying all the pops of white in one grid before moving onto the next because, well, can you imagine losing your place after 300-something albatross? Albatross like nesting on flat, grassy terrain, and their white feathers stand out against the vegetation, making them fairly easy to spot. Here’s what one bird looks like from space: The team compared their counts to available ground-based tallies and found the numbers were similar, save for one island in the Chatham Islands. The researchers attribute the disparity to a decrease in breeding among the northern royal albatross during the years between the ground-based count and the satellite survey. Recommended: Two Dead Canaries in the Coal Mine Fretwell said the team actually has the U.S. government to thank for this extreme birdwatching. In 2015, federal regulators granted permission to DigitalGlobe, the maker of WorldView-3, to sell images at a higher resolution on the open market, easing a restriction that banned commercial satellite companies from selling images with a pixel resolution sharper than 50 centimeters to anyone besides the U.S. government. The WorldView-3 has a viewing power of 30 centimeters, can see through smoke and spot objects as small as a fire hydrant—or an albatross. Researchers have used space-based technology to track animals as early as 2004, when scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society used a satellite orbiting 280 miles above Earth to survey the inhabitants of the Bronx Zoo, snapping blurry photos of giraffes and gazelles. “That’s like standing on top of the Empire State Building and spotting a deer in Maine,” one of the scientists said back then. The resolution has grown sharper in the years since, and researchers have been able to capture animals in far more distant parts of the world than New York City.
News Article | May 4, 2017
They are using the highest-resolution satellite images available to gauge the numbers of Northern Royal albatrosses. This endangered animal nests almost exclusively on some rocky sea-stacks close to New Zealand’s Chatham Islands. The audit, led by experts at the British Antarctic Survey, represents the first time any species on Earth has had its entire global population assessed from orbit. The scientists report the satellite technique in Ibis, a journal of the British Ornithologists' Union. It is likely to have a major impact on efforts to conserve the Northern Royals (Diomedea sanfordi). Ordinarily, these birds are very difficult to appraise because their nesting sites are so inaccessible. Not only are the sea-stacks far from NZ (680km), but their vertical cliffs mean that any visiting scientist might also have to be adept at rock climbing. "Getting the people, ships or planes to these islands to count the birds is expensive, but it can be very dangerous as well," explained Dr Peter Fretwell from BAS. This makes the DigitalGlobe WorldView-3 satellite something of a breakthrough. It can acquire pictures of Earth that capture features as small as 30cm across. The US government has only recently permitted such keen resolution to be distributed outside the military and intelligence sectors. WorldView-3 can see the nesting birds as they sit on eggs to incubate them or as they guard newly hatched chicks. With a body length of over a metre, the adult albatrosses only show up as two or three pixels, but their white plumage makes them stand out against the surrounding vegetation. The BAS team literally counts the dots. The researchers first checked their methodology at Bird Island, South Georgia. This is a unique nature reserve in the South Atlantic where the nests of another species of great albatross, the Wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), are individually marked with GPS locators. The biggest confounding factor is large, light-coloured rocks. But the analysis showed the team could get a very close match between the pixelated birds in the space images and the nests that were recorded in the ground-truth data. There tends to be a slight over-counting, which the team puts down to breeding partners or non-breeding birds also being captured in a satellite scene. Applying the technique at the Chatham Islands, the team counted just over 3,600 nests. This is slightly down on a manual count of 5,700 that was made in 2009. Dr Fretwell said: "The breeding numbers we counted were much lower than we anticipated, which could show us that the population is declining or it could show just that we had a particularly poor year. But this illustrates why you have to do this over several years, and doing it by satellite is going be a lot cheaper and more efficient." Dr Paul Scofield at Canterbury Museum, NZ, is a co-author on the Ibis paper. He described the difficulty of counting the birds in the traditional way at the group of stacks known as the Forty Fours. "The 44s are particularly tricky," he told BBC News. "I once waited a whole month on the main Chatham Island for the weather to clear so I could land. "Even if you use a plane, it's a problem as planes are only available infrequently and the wind and cloud prevent flying. Then if you take photos, you have to count them. That can take 100s of hours. This technology still requires the satellite to be in the right place and no cloud but it is certainly cheaper and more reliable." Like the other five species of great albatross, Northern Royals are under pressure for a variety of reasons. Commercial fishing has depleted the stocks on which these seabirds also feed, and the baited longline gear used by some vessels has an unpleasant knack for attracting foragers and pulling them underwater where they drown. But the Northern Royals in particular are vulnerable because of their desire to nest only on the Chatham Islands sea-stacks. If one big storm rolls through at the wrong time of year, it can severely dent breeding success. "In 1986, a huge storm washed waves over these 50m-tall islands," said Dr Scofield. Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos
Worthy T.H.,University of New South Wales |
Worthy T.H.,University of Adelaide |
Scofield R.P.,Canterbury Museum
New Zealand Journal of Zoology | Year: 2012
The iconic moa (Avcs: Dinornithiformes) from New Zealand continue to attract much scientific scrutiny, as they have done since their discovery in the 1840s. Here, we review moa research since 2001 that advances our knowledge of the biology of these families; in particular, their breeding, diet and phylogenetic relationships. Then we perform a phylogenetic analysis based on morphological characters using a broader range of taxa and many more characters than hitherto used in moa analyses. Finally, we provide revised diagnoses of all moa taxa to reflect current knowledge. In this last decade, molecular analyses have been at the forefront of much of this research. Indeed, moa have become model subjects for advances in ancient DNA technology on account of their preservation and young geological age, and the fact that several of the foremost proponents of ancient DNA research are New Zealanders. Much of this research has been about extending the capacity of ancient DNA technology as much as about answering biological questions, but the resultant insights with regard to the latter have been profound for moa. Complete mitochondrial genomes for three species of moa have been published and extensive datasets of a number of mitochondrial genes are now available for all species over their entire geographic range. Analyses of nuclear DNA is limited to a sex specific gene and some preliminary microsatellite identifications, but it seems likely that improved technology will allow greater use of this resource in the near future. Phylogenetic analyses of mitochondrial molecular data have precipitated several changes to moa taxonomy and nine species are now recognised. The significance of deep phylogenetic structure among populations in some taxa continues to attract debate and likely will require nuclear data and a more profound understanding of natural variation in extant species to resolve. Significantly, molecular data have enabled new insights into diet, with direct identification of species responsible for coprolites, and by its new-found propensity to identify eggshell, foreshadows further advances in understanding their breeding biology and distribution. Our phylogenetic analysis, based on 179 characters scored for 23 ingroup palaeognath taxa and three galloanseres as outgroups, resulted in several strongly supported relationships. Firstly, the Eocene palaeognath Lithornis was either sister to remaining palaeognaths or had a weak affinity towards tinamous. All ratites formed a monophyletic clade exclusive of tinamous. Moa were monophyletic and sister to aepyornithids in the unconstrained analysis. Attempts to constrain moa as sister to tinamous to reflect molecular-based conclusions resulted in moa as sister to all ratites in a clade that was unresolved with respect to tinamous and Lithornis. This relatively basal position of moa was not a significantly worse reflection of the data compared to their more crownward location in the initial analyses. The casuariids were sister to Struthio and the rheas. In our revised diagnoses for Dinornithiformes and all its constituent taxa, we give updated information on the type specimens based on recent research by the authors. We accept three families, six genera and nine species, and make the new combinations of Euryapteryx curtus curtus (Owen) and E. curtus gravis (Owen). Complete or near complete exemplars of the skull of all moa taxa, most not illustrated before, are shown in dorsal, lateral and ventral views.
News Article | February 28, 2017
Together with colleagues from New Zealand, Senckenberg scientist Dr. Gerald Mayr described a recently discovered fossil of a giant penguin with a body length of around 150 centimeters. The new find dates back to the Paleocene era and, with an age of approx. 61 million years, counts among the oldest penguin fossils in the world. The bones differ significantly from those of other discoveries of the same age and indicate that the diversity of Paleocene penguins was higher than previously assumed. In their study, published today in the Springer journal The Science of Nature, the team of scientists therefore postulates that the evolution of penguins started much earlier than previously thought, probably already during the age of dinosaurs. The fossil sites along the Waipara River in New Zealand's Canterbury region are well known for their avian fossils, which were embedded in marine sand a mere 4 million years after the dinosaurs became extinct. "Among the finds from these sites, the skeletons of Waimanu, the oldest known penguin to date, are of particular importance," explains Dr. Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. Together with colleagues from the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, Mayr now described a newly discovered penguin fossil from the famous fossil site. "What sets this fossil apart are the obvious differences compared to the previously known penguin remains from this period of geological history," explains the ornithologist from Frankfurt, and he continues, "The leg bones we examined show that during its lifetime, the newly described penguin was significantly larger than its already described relatives. Moreover, it belongs to a species that is more closely related to penguins from later time periods." According to the researchers, the newly described penguin lived about 61 million years ago and reached a body length of approx. 150 centimeters -- making it almost as big as Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, the largest known fossil penguin, which lived in Antarctica around 45 to 33 million years ago, thus being much younger in geological terms. "This shows that penguins reached an enormous size quite early in their evolutionary history, around 60 million years ago," adds Mayr. In addition, the team of scientists from New Zealand and Germany assumes that the newly discovered penguin species also differed from their more primitive relatives in the genus Waimanu in their mode of locomotion: The large penguins presumably already moved with the upright, waddling gait characteristic for today's penguins. "The discoveries show that penguin diversity in the early Paleocene was clearly higher than we previously assumed," says Mayr, and he adds, "In turn, this diversity indicates that the first representatives of penguins already arose during the age of dinosaurs, more than 65 million years ago." Mayr, G. et al. (2017). A new fossil from the mid-Paleocene of New Zealand reveals an unexpected diversity of world's oldest penguins, The Science of Nature.
News Article | February 28, 2017
Together with colleagues from New Zealand, Senckenberg scientist Dr. Gerald Mayr described a recently discovered fossil of a giant penguin with a body length of around 150 centimeters. The new find dates back to the Paleocene era and, with an age of approx. 61 million years, counts among the oldest penguin fossils in the world. The bones differ significantly from those of other discoveries of the same age and indicate that the diversity of Paleocene penguins was higher than previously assumed. In their study, published today in the Springer journal The Science of Nature, the team of scientists therefore postulates that the evolution of penguins started much earlier than previously thought, probably already during the age of dinosaurs. The fossil sites along the Waipara River in New Zealand's Canterbury region are well known for their avian fossils, which were embedded in marine sand a mere 4 million years after the dinosaurs became extinct. "Among the finds from these sites, the skeletons of Waimanu, the oldest known penguin to date, are of particular importance," explains Dr. Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. Together with colleagues from the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, Mayr now described a newly discovered penguin fossil from the famous fossil site. "What sets this fossil apart are the obvious differences compared to the previously known penguin remains from this period of geological history," explains the ornithologist from Frankfurt, and he continues, "The leg bones we examined show that during its lifetime, the newly described penguin was significantly larger than its already described relatives. Moreover, it belongs to a species that is more closely related to penguins from later time periods." According to the researchers, the newly described penguin lived about 61 million years ago and reached a body length of approx. 150 centimeters -- making it almost as big as Anthropornis nordenskjoeldi, the largest known fossil penguin, which lived in Antarctica around 45 to 33 million years ago, thus being much younger in geological terms. "This shows that penguins reached an enormous size quite early in their evolutionary history, around 60 million years ago," adds Mayr. In addition, the team of scientists from New Zealand and Germany assumes that the newly discovered penguin species also differed from their more primitive relatives in the genus Waimanu in their mode of locomotion: The large penguins presumably already moved with the upright, waddling gait characteristic for today's penguins. "The discoveries show that penguin diversity in the early Paleocene was clearly higher than we previously assumed," says Mayr, and he adds, "In turn, this diversity indicates that the first representatives of penguins already arose during the age of dinosaurs, more than 65 million years ago."
News Article | January 14, 2016
Researchers from Canterbury Museum, the University of Auckland, Finders University and the Universities of New England (Australia) and New South Wales have discovered that the nine species of moa were able to co-exist because differences in the structure and strength of each species' skull and bills were influenced by, or dictated by, diet. The findings are published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, in London. Co-author, Dr Peter Johnston from the University of Auckland's Anatomy and Medical Imaging department, made MRI scans of the mummified moa remains to allow accurate models to be made for the research. The moa, which roamed New Zealand until the 15th century, were herbivores and some of the largest birds to have ever existed. The largest species, the South Island Giant moa, weighed up to 240 kg whilst the smallest (the upland moa) was the size of a sheep. Until now scientists had thought that the huge difference in size between the species determined their foraging behaviour as well as what, when and where they ate (ie their ecological niche). Co-author Professor Paul Scofield from Canterbury Museum says that the team took the most complete skulls of each species of moa from the collections of Canterbury Museum and Te Papa Tongarewa and scanned those using medical CT (Computed Tomography) scanners. "We then produced highly accurate 3D models of each. This wasn't a simple job as we didn't have a single skull that was perfect so we used sophisticated digital cloning techniques to digitally reconstruct accurate osteological models for each species," Professor Scofield said. Using the medical MRI scans of the mummified remains, Dr Johnston digitally reconstructed the muscles of each species. "Each moa species has a characteristic bill shape and the reasons for this have not previously been defined," says Dr Johnston. "Charles Darwin had an easier time investigating a similar situation in Galapagos finches, as the differences are more extreme and the diets are obvious in that group of birds." Software used by civil engineers after the Canterbury Earthquakes to identify weak or unsound buildings, was used to test the strength and structure of each moa species' bill. These were compared to each other and to two living relatives, the emu and cassowary. The models simulated the response of the skull to different biting and feeding behaviours including clipping twigs and pulling, twisting or bowing head motions to remove foliage. The skull mechanics of moa were found to be surprisingly diverse. The little bush moa had a relatively short, sharp-edged bill and was superior among moa at cutting twigs and branches, supporting the proposition that they primarily fed on fibrous material from trees and shrubs. At the opposite extreme, the coastal moa had a relatively weak skull compared to all other species which may have forced them to travel further than other moa in search of suitable food, such as soft fruit and leaves. Dr Trevor Worthy (a New Zealander working at Flinders University in Australia) says "until now we have been limited in assessing anatomical function to examining the external aspect of bones. This new technology allows us to bring new life to old bones and to get one step closer to understanding the birds they came from." "Little has been known about how New Zealand's ecosystem evolved, largely because we know so little about how moa lived and co-existed," says Associate Professor Stephen Wroe, leader of the Function, Evolution and Anatomy Research (FEAR) laboratory at the University of New England (Australia). "This new research advances our understanding about the feeding behaviours of the moa species and their impact on New Zealand's unique and distinctive flora." Explore further: Evolutionary reason for massive difference in size between male and female giant moa revealed
Scofield R.P.,Canterbury Museum |
Cullen R.,Lincoln University at Christchurch
New Zealand Journal of Ecology | Year: 2012
We welcome a reply by Innes et al. (2012) to our article (Scofield et al. 2011) questioning the contribution of 'predator-proof' fences. We note that Innes et al. do not question the fundamental points of our thesis: (1) fence costs have not been properly assessed and evaluated; (2) that fenced sanctuaries enhance conservation of species has not been properly evaluated; (3) cheaper methods exist to achieve significant improvements in species' threat status at national levels. We also wish to acknowledge the widespread debate that has accompanied the publication of this paper (see Brookes 2011; Forest & Bird website 2011). We agree with Innes et al. (2012) that many local restoration projects pursue a range of goals and have little doubt they attain some of them. We agree that careful, systematic, comprehensive monitoring and timely evaluation of these projects is needed to be able to reach strong conclusions about their contributions. We expect that trial and error across restoration sites will help identify what works, what can be achieved, and what is sustainable (socially and financially). We believe that it is crucial that the results of such experimentation are rigorously determined and published to enable knowledge sharing not just within local project communities but also among the interested public and professional communities. © New Zealand Ecological Society.
Scofield R.P.,Canterbury Museum |
Cullen R.,Lincoln University at Christchurch |
Wang M.,Lincoln University at Christchurch
New Zealand Journal of Ecology | Year: 2011
A review of pest-exclusion fences throughout New Zealand shows that the goals of fence projects are frequently not achieved and cost-benefit analyses often do not adequately quantify ongoing costs. The creation of these sanctuaries enclosed by predator-proof fences often creates small expensive zoos surrounded by degraded habitat that will never be able to sustain the animal and plant species contained within the fence. We examine what fence proponents and conservation trusts believe they are achieving and ask whether the evidence available demonstrates that fenced areas are capable of fulfilling these objectives. © New Zealand Ecological Society.
Worthy T.H.,University of New South Wales |
Tennyson A.J.D.,Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa |
Scofield R.P.,Canterbury Museum
Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology | Year: 2011
A new genus and three species of parrot (Psittaciformes, Strigopidae, Nestorinae) are described from the early Miocene (19-16 Ma) St Bathans Fauna of Otago, New Zealand, based on 85 fossils as follows: Nelepsittacus minimus (17), N. donmertoni (60), and N. daphneleeae (6), with two additional fossils representing a fourth unnamed taxon. These taxa range from small parrots approximately the size of Cyanoramphus species to one as large as the living Nestor notabilis. Apomorphies in the coracoid, humerus, tibiotarsus, and tarsometatarsus ally Nelepsittacus with Nestor and exclude a close relationship with Strigops, the other endemic genus assumed to have had a long history in New Zealand. With only nestorine parrots represented, the St Bathans Fauna has nothing in common with the Australian psittaciform fauna, in which cacatuids and a diversity of psittacid genera exist. These data add to the growing body of evidence that the New Zealand terrestrial vertebrate fauna, at a time minimally 3 Ma after the maximal marine inundation of Zealandia in the late Oligocene, was highly endemic, with no close relationship to the closest faunas in Australia. This high degree of endemism strongly suggests that the Zealandian terrestrial biota persisted, at least in part, through the Oligocene highstand in sea level. © 2011 by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Hiller N.,Canterbury Museum
New Zealand Journal of Geology and Geophysics | Year: 2011
A fauna of tiny brachiopods is described from a number of Early Miocene (Otaian) localities in Northland, New Zealand: a single locality in the Waiteroa Member, Pakaurangi Formation, Kaipara Harbour area, and eight localities in the Waitiiti Formation, Hokianga Harbour area. New species described are Lacazella novazelandiae and Notozyga maxwelli. Other taxa recorded include Novocrania cf. turbinata (Poli), Thecidellina sp., Terebratulina sp., Argyrotheca kupei Hiller, Robinson & Lee, Megerlina miracula Hiller, MacKinnon & Nielsen, indeterminate Terebratulidae and Terebratellidae and three unidentified specimens. The composition of the fauna contrasts markedly with that of contemporaneous faunas of Canterbury and North Otago, eastern South Island, reflecting palaeobiogeographical differences. © 2011 The Royal Society of New Zealand.