Tasmanian student Erin Bok's mission to save the rare forty-spotted pardalote bird

© Provided by ABC NEWS University of Tasmania student Erin Bok wants to learn more about the forty-spotted pardalote’s relationship to its food.  (ABC News: Alexandra Alvaro)

Hearing the forty-spotted pardalote’s call is an increasingly rare event. The bird, endemic to Tasmania, has been in decline for decades. 

But as PhD candidate at the University of Tasmania Erin Bok collects eucalyptus tree samples on the Queens Domain in Hobart, she is hoping the branches in her bucket hold the secret to rescuing one of Tasmania’s most endangered birds.

“The pardalotes really rely very heavily on Eucalyptus viminalis for food,” Ms Bok said. 

“It also makes up 80 per cent of the nestlings’ diet so it’s really important for the fitness of the birds and continuation of breeding and it’s really important that we make sure that this food source is continually available to them.”

Ms Bok’s research is all about figuring out what factors influence the quality of the manna, or sap, the Eucalyptus viminalis, or white gums produce. 

“[The birds have] been known to show preference between certain specific tress depending on the quality of the sap,” Ms Bok said. 

She’s looking to find out what factors produce trees with manna high in sucrose rather than raffinose, which is less bioavailable to the birds. 

“So the things I’m interested in are the natural genetics of the trees … climate variables at the site that it’s growing at, the age of the tree and the size of the tree,” she said.

Scientists estimate there are only around 1,000 birds left. There are two main population areas, Bruny Island and Maria Island, off Tasmania’s mainland.

Both islands are home to 99 per cent of the population. 

There are also scattered colonies on mainland Tasmania and scientists believe there is a handful of birds left on Flinders Island. 

There aren’t any forty-spotted pardalotes on the Queens Domain in Hobart, where Erin is collecting samples.

But the area does contain a wide variety of Eucalyptus viminalis, of all ages and sizes, and it’s much more accessible to her. 

Once Ms Bok has taken the trees samples, she brings them to the lab to make incisions, so the sap seeps out of the branches and crystalises. It’s those pieces of crystallised sugar that can then be analysed for their quality. 

Bird just ‘trying to hang onto its patch’

Sally Bryant has been working on the species for decades and says the outlook is grim. 

“It’s one of three pardalote species found in Tasmania but unlike the other two species the forty-spot is nationally endangered, very restricted in its distribution and is declining in number,” Dr Bryant said. 

“They’re endangered because they are linked to one resource, that’s white gum, and because they’re small and vulnerable they’re very susceptible to stochastic risks like wildfire, cats predation, they’re out-competed by more aggressive birds.

“They’re really a small species trying to hang onto its patch,” she said. 

But there is also a new threat that has been emerging — climate change. 

The gums are particularly susceptible to drought. 

“If [the tree] dries out it doesn’t produce the manna … we also have a rapid rate of development in some of the traditional colonies,” Dr Bryant said. 

“Bruny Island is a natural wonderland that has a growing number of visitors so we have a number of threats that are compounding on this species population,” she said. 

Mapping the impact

Ms Bok is hoping her research leads to tangible conservation outcomes for the bird. 

Once she figures out what factors influence manna quality, she can map the trees in the birds’ actual habitat and predict how secure the food source may be in years to come. 

“Once I’ve got a bit of an understanding of different traits, so genetic traits, environmental traits, age size time, how those things influence manna quality, I’ll then put that data into a model that will then overlay onto a map of Tasmania,” she said. 

“From there we’ll be able to adjust those climate variables for future climate scenarios and see how that manna quality might change under those future scenarios.” 

She hopes ultimately, scientists will be able to use that information to implement conservation programs. 

“We can help make management decisions around them, be it as we said, artificial supplement feeding programs or looking at areas for reintroduction or looking at a site that maybe we need to pay a bit more attention to,” she said. 

Dr Bryant is grateful to the new generation giving the bird a fighting chance at survival. 

“As a Tasmanian and a good islander, I see the forty-spot as very emblematic to our state and to Australia,” she said.

“I see how lucky and how proud we should be to have birds that are as unique and magical as the little forty-spotted pardalote.”


Gallery: These animals don’t mind living in splendid isolation (StarsInsider)

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