Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Parrots Divided

By Stephen Luntz

The eastern and western ground parrot are now considered distinct enough to justify their separation into separate species.

Parrots Divided

Australia has a new species of bird, with the eastern and western ground parrot considered distinct enough to justify their separation. The discovery will add urgency to conservation measures for the western variety, which is threatened by development of the coastal heathland in which it is found.

“This really shows the value of museum collections,” says Dr Stephen Murphy of the Wildlife Conservancy. “We relied almost solely on birds collected 100 years ago. Museums keep track of biodiversity. You can’t overstate how important these collections are.”

Both ground parrot species can fly, but they live in low bushes and prefer to keep close to the ground. Murphy says that although there are no hard and fast rules for determining when geographically separated populations are distinct species, DNA evidence revealed greater differences than those observed “in a lot of very well recognised sister taxa”.

The finding was not a surprise since many birds have evolved into separate species on either side of the Nullarbor Plain. “The ground parrot had been somewhat overlooked, and once we looked closer it was clear they should be considered separate species,” Murphy says.

Murphy believes that this adds to the importance of conserving the habitat of the western ground parrot. “Genetic diversity is part of biodiversity. Without it we wouldn’t have evolution,” he says. “If they were the same species there would be things we could do with the eastern population to bolster the west, but now we know we can’t rely on importing them as they will not be adapted to these conditions.”

The coastal heathlands in which the parrots live are particularly popular development sites. A combination of habitat loss and fragmentation pose the major threats to the parrots, but feral cats are believed to have wiped out one population.