News from the Field, Press Release

New grant for fairy-wren research in the Kimberley

21 Nov. 2023
Niki Teunissen

Researchers will investigate how increasing hot weather could impact the Purple-crowned Fairy-wren’s chances of survival under climate change, thanks to an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant awarded last week. A team from Monash University has been following a population of the endangered birds at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary (on Bunuba and Kija Country) in WA since 2004, uncovering incredible details about their complex social lives, behaviour and ecology.

Researcher Dr Niki Teunissen inspects a Purple-crowned Fairy-wren nest in a pandanus plant at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kimberley, WA. N Teunissen/AWC
Researcher Dr Niki Teunissen inspects a Purple-crowned Fairy-wren nest in a pandanus plant at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kimberley, WA.

The Purple-crowned Fairy-wren is of special interest to researchers because they live in tight-knit social groups that share the load of raising young and defending the territory from both neighbouring fairy-wren groups and potential predators. In the Kimberley, this species lives only in the pandanus and paperbark vegetation that lines creeks and rivers, a habitat preference which puts the birds under threat from wet season floods and intense wildfires. Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary is owned and managed for conservation by the non-profit Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC).

The new ARC Discovery Grant funding will support research into how a warming climate might have an impact on fairy-wren populations by damaging their DNA. Heat stress in the early stages of life is associated with shorter lifespan of individual birds and could have a substantial effect on the long-term viability of populations.

N Teunissen
A male Purple-crowned Fairy-wren in breeding plumage, caught by the researchers as part of the study.

“Climate modelling is telling us that there will be more frequent hot days and longer heatwaves,” said lead researcher Professor Anne Peters. “If that is going to impact the viability of this species, that’s a significant conservation concern that we need to know about.”

Each year, the researchers spend several months living and working at AWC’s Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, contending with the gruelling conditions of fieldwork in northern Australia. The team hikes long distances in the tropical heat to access remote sections of habitat, pushing through spiderwebs and spiky pandanus plants, and wading through creeks which harbour tree snakes and freshwater crocodiles.

“They are fascinating birds to observe and they live in this incredible landscape along beautiful, spring-fed creeks. We see lots of other wildlife out and about while we’re tracking the fairy-wrens,” said researcher Dr Niki Teunissen, who has been involved in the work for more than a decade.

N Teunissen
The researchers must contend with a challenging landscape working along the thickly vegetated creeks of the Kimberley, and wading out to access some of their fairy-wren study sites.

Record-breaking floods in January this year meant the researchers had to be evacuated by helicopter from Mornington, along with local AWC staff. They were able to resume the study in May, finding that most of the fairy-wrens had survived the flooding and breeding was underway.

The Monash team has fitted every individual fairy-wren in the population with a unique combination of coloured leg-bands so they can be identified from a distance. They have published over 40 research papers on every detail of the birds’ lives – from how they disperse long distances, to rates of infidelity among breeding pairs, how they respond to wildfire, how they sing in duet to mark their territory, and how they fight off nest predators including goannas and giant centipedes.

The Purple-crowned Fairy-wren project is one of the longest-running comprehensive studies into a single population of birds in northern Australia. Such continuous long-term datasets are rare and exceptionally valuable in ecology, allowing scientists to investigate questions of how populations fluctuate and adapt to changing conditions over time. The Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens at Mornington have become a model organism for this kind of research.

Fairywren Family N Teunissen
Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens live in social groups and cooperate to help defend their territories and look after the nest.

Despite major challenges over the past few years, the Purple-crowned Fairy-wrens have persisted. The population has gradually increased thanks to AWC’s conservation land management, including the removal of feral cattle, careful fire management (to exclude fires from the creek-side habitat as much as possible), and weed control.

Dr Peters said she was excited to be able to continue the project. “It’s great that the future of the fairy-wren project is secure for another few years, and I’m grateful to the Australian Research Council and Australian Wildlife Conservancy for their unflagging support.”

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