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New Zealand’s Bird Biodiversity Loss Since Humans Arrived Would Take 50 Million Years to Recover, Study Finds

Animals
The kea is a large parrot species endangered in New Zealand. Nick Raubenheimer / EyeEm / Getty Images

The devastation that human activity has had on the diverse species of birds in New Zealand is so great that it would take 50 million years for the country's two main islands to recover its avian biodiversity, according to a new study published in Current Biology.


When the Maori arrived in New Zealand nearly 700 years ago, they found a land filled with unusual birds. For example, they saw the giant moa, a gargantuan ostrich-like bird that could stand seven feet tall. Then there was the Haast's eagle, which was so large it actually hunted the moa. They were roused from sleep when they heard the piercing cries of the laughing owl — all birds that have gone extinct, along with half of New Zealand's avian species, as Smithsonian Magazine reported. Even today, the nation's popular birds like the kiwi and the kakapo are endangered.

"The conservation decisions we make today will have repercussions for millions of years to come," said Luis Valente, lead author of the paper and researcher at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, in a press release. "Some people believe that if you leave nature alone it will quickly recuperate, but the reality is that, at least in New Zealand, nature would need several million years to recover from human actions — and perhaps will never really recover."

New Zealand's unique location allowed flightless birds before the Maori arrived and then European settlers. Since then, predation from rats and cats plus human settlements has decimated the kakapo bird, a stocky, flightless parrot, which is now considered critically endangered. The kiwi bird, New Zealand's national bird, which is also flightless, is listed as vulnerable to extinction since it falls prey to dogs and ferrets, as Smithsonian Magazine reported.

To calculate just how much New Zealand's unique bird population has been damaged, the researchers combed through previously collected archaeological and paleontological data from the precise times when many of New Zealand's birds went extinct. Some studies had even archived ancient DNA from extinct birds on the island. After compiling the data, the scientists applied a new computer model that estimates how fast species evolve and die, which led them to the 50 million years number, as Discover Magazine reported.

That number surprised Valente and his team. In 2017 he published a study that showed it would take about 8 million years to recover bat diversity in the Caribbean. "The evolutionary impact of humans was much deeper than we had anticipated," Valente said, as Discover Magazine reported. "So the effect of humans on New Zealand birds … was considerably larger."

Fortunately, New Zealand does prioritize conservation. A large population of Kakapos has been moved to a predator-free island where scientists closely monitor them. And earlier this week, New Zealand's conservation minister Eugenie Sage announced a new biodiversity strategy that will set goals for the next 50 years, emphasizing habitat restoration and getting rid of invasive predators. The strategy aims to increase all native species, habitats and ecosystems by 2070, according to Radio New Zealand.

"We've got an economy that depends on nature, for tourism, for farming, for our food and fiber exports," said Sage. "It's essential to our wellbeing as individuals and as a people. We must do better at healing and restoring it."

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