by Matt Fielding, 6th August at 10:44 AM

When we think of fossils, we typically think of dinosaurs and giant mammals. However, Australia was also home to more than 90 known extinct bird species. These include some of the largest and weirdest birds to roam the Earth, such as the massive Mihirungs (which include the demon duck of doom), the egg-burying megapodes and the dwarf emus of the Bass Strait islands.

One of the oldest bird families that we know of are the Mihirungs (also known as the Dromornithids or Thunderbirds) (Murray & Vickers Rich 2004). These birds were huge! One species, Dromornis stirtoni, was possibly the largest bird to walk the Earth standing at 3 metres tall and weighing up to 650 kilograms (Handley et al. 2016). These generously sized birds were once considered to be relatives of the emu and cassowary due to their similar appearance and inability to fly. However, recent work suggests they were actually more closely related to chickens and ducks (Worthy et al. 2017) – they’re basically enormous chooks! While fossils of Mihirungs have been found from as far back as 24 million years ago, some remains have been dated to as recently as 50 thousand years ago (Murray & Vickers Rich 2004).

These recent fossils belong to the species Genyornis newtoni, the last surviving member of the Mihirungs and possibly the most well-known extinct bird from Australia. The Genyornis is included in a group of animals we call the ‘megafauna’, a range of larger-than-expected animals, which include king-sized kangaroos, whopping wombats, enormous echidnas and gigantic goannas. It is suggested that most megafauna, including the Genyornis, went extinct around 45,000 years ago following the arrival of humans in Australia (Johnson et al. 2016). The Genyornis’ fame stems from its contribution to understanding the extinction of Australia’s megafauna. Their eggshells have provided scientists with possible evidence of predation by humans, through burnt fragments of eggshells, and shifts in vegetation types, through nutrient changes in the eggshells of the Genyornis and emu over time (Miller et al. 2016).


An artist’s rendition of Genyornis newtoni (Credit: Anne Musser)

However, recent work has suggested that these eggshells may not even belong to the Genyornis and the eggs may actually belong of a group of birds called the megapodes (Grellet-Tinner, Spooner & Worthy 2016). These birds are relatives of the extant malleefowl but were a little larger and included groups unofficially known as the “tall turkeys” and the “nuggety chickens” (Shute, Prideaux & Worthy 2017). Megapodes use heat from the environment to incubate their eggs. Therefore, it is suggested these ancient birds used sand dunes (which is where most eggshells were found) for incubation (Grellet-Tinner, Lindsay & Thompson 2017). Despite egg ownership being unclear, the eggshells still improve our understanding of the past Australian environment and extinctions.


Fossil remains of the giant malleefowl (Progura naracoortensis) from the Naracoote Caves National Park in South Australia (Credit: Naracoote Fossil Centre)

There have been a number of extinctions more recently too, occurring after the landing of Europeans in Australia. Found on King Island, Kangaroo Island and Tasmania, three subspecies of emu went extinct around 200 years ago (Thomson et al. 2018). Their extinction was probably the result of predation by humans and the introduction of non-native species, such as rats and dogs. These extinct emus were quite different from extant emus, with the King and Kangaroo Island emus being dwarf in size, standing at less than half the size of current emus (Heupink, Huynen & Lambert 2011). The dumpy birds likely evolved their short statue due to their isolation from the mainland (the result of sea level rise about 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age) and adaptation to the low scrubby vegetation found on the islands (Thomson et al. 2018).


An artist’s rendition of the King Island Emu, Dromaius ater (Credit: John Gerrard Keulemans)

So what’s the point in studying these dead birds? They’re certainly cool but it’s a little late to save them and we don’t have the technology for de-extinction just yet. However, these extinct birds can tell us something about the threatened birds we have now and how best to protect them. Understanding the processes that led to the extinctions of these ancient birds improves our understanding of extinction in general and can inform conservation decisions to reduce future loss of our wonderful avian fauna, keeping our bird buddies around to sing for future generations.


Grellet-Tinner, G., Lindsay, S. & Thompson, M.B. (2017) The biomechanical, chemical and physiological adaptations of the eggs of two Australian megapodes to their nesting strategies and their implications for extinct titanosaur dinosaurs. Journal of Microscopy, 267, 237-249.

Grellet-Tinner, G., Spooner, N.A. & Worthy, T.H. (2016) Is the “Genyornis” egg of a mihirung or another extinct bird from the Australian dreamtime? Quaternary Science Reviews, 133, 147-164.

Handley, W.D., Chinsamy, A., Yates, A.M. & Worthy, T.H. (2016) Sexual dimorphism in the late Miocene mihirung Dromornis stirtoni (Aves: Dromornithidae) from the Alcoota Local Fauna of central Australia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 36.

Heupink, T.H., Huynen, L. & Lambert, D.M. (2011) Ancient DNA suggests Dwarf and ‘Giant’ Emu are conspecific. PLOS ONE, 6.

Johnson, C.N., Alroy, J., Beeton, N.J., Bird, M.I., Brook, B.W., Cooper, A., Gillespie, R., Herrando-Pérez, S., Jacobs, Z., Miller, G.H., Prideaux, G.J., Roberts, R.G., Rodríguez-Rey, M., Saltré, F., Turney, C.S.M. & Bradshaw, C.J.A. (2016) What caused extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna of Sahul? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 283, 20152399.

Miller, G., Magee, J., Smith, M., Spooner, N., Baynes, A., Lehman, S., Fogel, M., Johnston, H., Williams, D., Clark, P., Florian, C., Holst, R. & DeVogel, S. (2016) Human predation contributed to the extinction of the Australian megafaunal bird Genyornis newtoni ∼47 ka. Nature Communications, 7.

Murray, P.F. & Vickers Rich, P. (2004) Magnificent Mihirungs: The Colossal Flightless Birds of the Australian Dreamtime. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN.

Shute, E., Prideaux, G.J. & Worthy, T.H. (2017) Taxonomic review of the late Cenozoic megapodes (Galliformes: Megapodiidae) of Australia. Royal Society Open Science, 4.

Thomson, V.A., Mitchell, K.J., Eberhard, R., Dortch, J., Austin, J.J. & Cooper, A. (2018) Genetic diversity and drivers of dwarfism in extinct island emu populations. Biology Letters, 14.

Worthy, T.H., Degrange, F.J., Handley, W.D. & Lee, M.S.Y. (2017) The evolution of giant flightless birds and novel phylogenetic relationships for extinct fowl (Aves, Galloanseres). Royal Society Open Science, 4.

*All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members.

Effects of the introduced superb lyrebird on forest-litter loads and fire risk in Tasmania

(Honours project by Damien Ashlin)


A lyrebird. Photo credit:

The overall objective of this project:

  • Identify potential habitat for lyrebirds within Tasmania, and map their currently known distribution.
  • Investigate links between lyrebird foraging behaviour (scratching) and fire risk within Tasmanian forests.
  • Further, I will expand contemporary knowledge on the lyrebird’s ecosystem influence within Tasmania, by adding to the work undertaken by Sarah Tassell (PhD) and Zoe Tanner (Honours).

The key questions that I want to investigate:

  • Based on environmental variables of the superb lyrebird’s native range (Vic, NSW, ACT & Qld), what would the superb lyrebird’s ideal habitat and eventual geographical distribution be within Tasmania?
  • When mechanically working the leaf litter layer (surface fuel for fire) can lyrebird behaviour influence the accumulation and distribution of litter biomass between open plots (lyrebird presence) and exclusion plots (lyrebird absence).
  • If lyrebirds are influencing leaf-litter biomass within forests, does this influence the potential severity or frequency of fires in that landscape?

A species distribution model (SDM) will be based on known climatic and habitat parameters for superb lyrebirds in their native range of mainland Australia. From this, predictions of suitable habitat within Tasmania can be made and referenced with existing historical records (acknowledging that lyrebirds continue to expand their Tasmanian range after initial 20thcentury introductions in two locations). Identified key habitat areas from the SDM in Tasmania will be referenced with Tasmanian lyrebird observations (Natural Values Atlas of Tasmania, Birdlife Australia [TAS], Atlas of Living Australia).

Observational records will be matched with environmental data to develop a model that can predict lyrebird distribution based on habitat preferences (local ecological variables and climate data), and overlayed onto Tasmania to identify key habitat areas, this can be checked against current Tasmanian observational records.

Exclusion experiments will be used to quantify the influence of lyrebirds on leaf litter (surface fuel loads) within occupied sites by comparing treatments, and between occupied and control (absent) sites. Data will be collected from sites occupied by lyrebirds (lyrebird sites), from within their known range and areas immediately beyond their known range (e.g., lyrebird absent control sites) by utilising a paired exclusion and open-plot design between each site. A procedural control (two-sided fence) will be used to quantify the effect of  fencing on the accumulation of leaf-litter. Site selection: sites will display characteristics typical of lyrebird scratching, site variables are measured at commencement of the projects experimental period and again at the end of the experimental period. Lyrebird field sites are located at: ×1 Brown Mountain Reserve, x1 Raminea, x2 Hastings. Site variables to be measured include: mean litter depth, percentage litter cover, litter moisture content, percentage canopy cover, lyrebird scratching percentage (scratching intensity), tree species composition, tree biomass, tree density, fire history. Data will be collected using a mixture of methods described in the Overall Fuel Hazard Assessment guide from the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, and methods for estimating environmental variables from Sarah Tassells PhD thesis (Braun-Blanquet Index for percentage cover of relevant variables). Control sites free of lyrebirds will be areas beyond the lyrebird’s current distribution x2 in Wellington Park and x2 on Bruny Island. Biomass data (measurement and litter collection) will be taken at random from within the 3×3 meter treatment plots. There will be ×4 lyrebird sites and ×4 control sites, giving a total of eight sites. Each site will have ×3 replications of each treatment (×3 exclusion plots, ×3 open plots, ×3 procedural controls) for a total of 24 replications of each treatment.

Field surveys will also be undertaken at each site. Within a 50m x 50m quadrat (.5 hectare), x 5 intercept lines (250m of transect) will be used to investigate lyrebird scratching. Along the transect lyrebird scratching presence or absence will be recorded at one-meter intervals and local variables will be quickly recorded, such as: scratching intensity, extent of scratching, age of scratching, vegetation structure, local species, slope etc. This may allow us to determine lyrebird influence over a greater area, but also link lyrebird foraging to local environmental factors.


A quadrat at one of the field sites.

Fire risk will be modelled using the McArthur Mk5 Forest Fire Fuel Model – described in the Overall Fuel Hazard Assessment guide from the Victorian Government (Department of Sustainability and Environment). This requires the following data to be collected from each site (Lyrebirds & Control): fuel dry weight (g); fuel dry weight (t/ha); water content (%); total fuel (t/ha); Canopy height (m) for lower and upper canopy, and ground slope (°). Note that measurements will be done at the commencement of the exclusion experiments (during autumn at the end of the burn season when it is not so wet). This data can be used to determine the behaviour of a fire in the respective sites.

Exclusion experiments will compare the amount of leaf litter biomass from each site using a contingency table approach and Generalised Linear Modelling (GLMs) using multi-model inference. I will also use these methods to explore the relationship between lyrebird’s occupancy and biomass, and the measured variables at each site (litter depth, litter cover, litter moisture, stand age, time-since-fire & tree species composition – as detailed above). Comparisons can be made between lyrebird occupied sites to unoccupied sites, and within site variation between treatment plots.

Fire behaviour modelling can predict the intensity of a potential fire from the input parameters mentioned above. From this we can assess fire risk from each site and each plot treatment (Exclosure vs Open). Flame height will be used as representation of fire behaviour, because it is influenced by fire intensity (energy output) and severity (biological impact).

  • Damien Ashlin

Check out what we are doing in our research group: DEEP lab

Long-term viability of the flightless Tasmanian native-hen

Project on Maria Island (PhD project)



The Tasmanian native-hen (Tribonyx mortierii) is a remarkable flightless bird of the rail family (Rallidae). Rails are ground-dwelling birds and are most often found in wetland environments. There once was over 1,000 flightless rail species present on the Pacific islands (Steadman 2006) – this was 1/5 of all bird species living on Earth at the time! After the arrival of the first human settlers about 10,000 years ago, hunting and introduced species wiped out almost all flightless rails, reduced further by European settlers from the 16th century onwards.

Today, only 20 flightless rail species remain, and all but two are threatened by extinction due to habitat loss, invasive species, over-hunting, and climate change.

The Tasmanian native-hen is one of the two remaining flightless rails that is not threatened. It has survived extreme events in Tasmania, such as culling and population collapses (diseases are suspected), but went extinct on the Australian mainland 3,500 years ago, probably due to the predation by dingoes and other factors (see Interesting facts section).

As an iconic Tasmanian species, but also a rare example of a thriving flightless bird, we need to measure its resistance to changing environments, to forecast its extinction risk in future threatening conditions (e.g., climate change, land-use change and exotic predators like the fox) and ensure the best management. To provide accurate estimates on their survival and population dynamics, we need to use a reliable study population. As it happens, Maria Island is the best location for this.


On Maria Island:

Thanks to the existence of a long-term study, undertaken in the 90s (Goldizen et al. 1998), we can estimate the evolution of native-hens’ populations as environmental conditions changed by comparing the measurements taken in the 90s to now. Over 150 native-hens were present in the 90s, just around Darlington. We estimated the population to be around 60 individuals in 2017, and of 40 in 2018. Numbers are declining on Maria Island, yet they are thought to be stable in Tasmania. We aim to find out why this population is declining, using this as a case study to explore whether there is cause for concern for other native hen populations in Tasmania.


Predation: Maria Island is the best place to measure the impact of predation on their survival. Indeed, Tasmanian devils were introduced in 2012 to create an insurance population from the deadly devil facial tumour disease (DFTD; see program here). The devils became abundant on the island and started to have a significant negative impact on bird populations. Along with Tasmanian devils, other native-hen predators are present, such as water-rats, forest ravens, currawongs, and tiger snakes. All of these predators are also found on mainland Tasmania, but since the devils were introduced on the small island, the total impact of predation is more severe. This high rate, not found elsewhere in Tasmania, could be used as a proxy for exploring what might happen to native-hen populations if an exotic predator like the fox was introduced into Tasmania. For this part of the project, we will measure egg, chick, and young survival rates (they are the more vulnerable to predation) throughout the breeding season from September to February.

Competition: herbivores are numerous on Maria Island, and competition for resources like grass can be high, especially in dry years. In particular, wombat populations have considerably increased since the 90s, with an estimated 3,200 individuals in 2017 (density of 335 wombats/km2, Ingram 2018). In 2017, very few groups of native-hens laid eggs on Maria island, suggesting that environmental conditions (potentially a lack of grass) was preventing reproduction (see picture of scarce grass below, taken in November 2017, Darlington)


To test the effect of habitat quality and competition, we installed 12 m2 exclusion plots in July 2018 (see picture below). These exclusion plots will prevent grazing by wombats and large macropods, such as kangaroos, but will allow entry for the native-hens to forage. To increase grass productivity, the plots will be watered during spring and summer. Half of the native-hens’ territories are left without exclosures (and so have no increase in grass) to measure the effect of resource availability on reproduction success.


Please don’t hesitate to send me your best pictures of the native-hens on Maria Island, I will post the best pictures on this page. If you are interested in volunteering for this project or hearing more about it, please contact me.

Check out what we are doing in our research group: DEEP lab

Interesting facts about the Tasmanian native-hen:

  • They are known by locals as Turbo chooks, as they can run as fast as 50 km/h!
  • Their Tasmanian Aboriginal name is “Piyura” (palawa kani language), although other sources refer it as “Triabunna”
  • They live on territories in family groups of up to 17 individuals, feeding exclusively on grass
  • While birds generally live and reproduce in pairs, groups of Tasmanian native-hen can be either monogamous (1 female with 1 male), polyandrous (1 female for many males), polygynous (1 male for many females) or polygynandrous (many males and females reproducing together).
  • After being culled because considered wrongly as an agricultural pest, especially in the 50s, it was protected under the law in 2010.
  • It went extinct from the mainland at the same time as the Tasmanian devil and the Tasmanian tiger about 3,500 years ago, probably due to the arrival of dingos, a cultural intensification by the Aborigines, and a climate change. It was the only bird to go extinct at the time.
  • It is a very rare and not fully understood case of the evolution of flightlessness on continent (mainland Australia), in the presence of predators.



Goldizen, A.W., Putland, D.A. & Goldizen, A.R. (1998) Variable mating patterns in Tasmanian native hens (Gallinula mortierii): correlates of reproductive success. Journal of Animal Ecology, 67, 307-317.

Ingram, J. (2018) An adaptive management case study for managing macropods on Maria Island National Park, Tasmania, Australia: adding devils to the detail. Pacific Conservation Biology, 24.

Steadman, D.W. (2006) Extinction and biogeography of tropical Pacific birds. University of Chicago Press.







by Lucile Lévêque, 31st May at 12:06 PM

The popular ideas we have about the way birds became flightless can seem straightforward, but the actual evolutionary pathway is rather complex. The stories about how evolution crafted biodiversity are fascinating, but they are long stories punctuated by exceptions and oddities. To illustrate some interesting facts and unsolved mysteries, “the true story of flightless birds” will be divided in several parts, presented in different articles.


Part 1 – A diversity of ultimate causes*

– “What permitted flightlessness?” –

The flightless South Island Takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri), from New Zealand (63 cm and 2.7 kg).

A coyote surprising pintail ducks at Bosque del Apache, New Mexico. Credit: Pat Gaines

Flight is a very successful evolutionary strategy. It helps to escape predators, disperse into new regions offering a better climate or resources, and finding mates more easily. Flight has evolved in three different animal classes: insects, mammals (bats) and birds. Yet its usefulness, some species have found more successful to get rid of flight! Flightlessness has evolved, independently, in a multitude of species, families and orders.

In insects for example, flightlessness is found in flies, moths, bees, wasps, ants, grasshoppers, crickets and beetles. On the contrary, no bats have been found to be entirely flightless, although two extinct and two living species are/were able to live part of their lives walking on the ground. The reasons why no bat ever become flightless and the possibility for bats to become flightless remain unknown.

In birds, complete flightlessness occurs, as well as all parts of the continuum between flying (volant) and flightless. Flying is not binary, and many species are rather “semi-flightless” birds. When birds are reluctant to take off and are only able to fly weakly over short distances, when they mostly flap, jump and glide between branches, it is hard to decide whether they are capable of flying or not. Generally, birds are recognised as being flightless when adults are unable to gain and maintain altitude by flapping their wings[1, 2], but the pathway leading to flightlessness is not the same for all birds.

Five categories of flightless birds are commonly recognised:

  • Post-dinosaur giants– when the large-bodied dinosaurs vanished, they left empty ecological niches that were promptly filled by giant flightless birds (up to 400kg and 3m tall). Some of these were carnivorous species.
  • Ratites- when we think about flightless birds, they are generally the ones we first think of: they include ostriches, emus, moas, cassowaries, kiwis, and so on. Many of these species live on continents.
  • Penguins– the only avian group to develop the ability to fly in a fluid thicker than air (water), modifying their wings in highly specialised flippers.
  • Island birds– mammal-deprived islands supported an enormous number of flightless birds worldwide, like the Dodo from Mauritius.
  • The others– the lesser-known exceptions who provide original evolutionary stories and who evolved flightless under a range of conditions.

This article will concentrate on flightlessness in groups other than the giant prehistoric birds and the ratites, as the evolutionary reasons for their flightlessness are different stories.


The flightless South Island Takahē (Porphyrio hochstetteri), from New Zealand.

In all cases, flightlessness resulted from the reallocation of energy used to maintain flight ability into other fitness-related traits. The evolutionary loss of flight is known in at least 26 avian families (in 17 orders). This diversity encompasses cormorants, parrots, pigeons, ibises, grebes, ducks, wrens, auks, doves, rails and more. To explain this process, we generally hear that birds evolve flightless on islands, because of the absence of predators. However, while predation is a strong determinant, it is not the ultimate* condition. In fact, flightlessness has also evolved on continents, and in the presence of predators. On the other hand, not all species on islands and/or without predators around will ever become flightless

1) Flightlessness can evolve on islands with predators

Two island types exist, and present different environmental conditions: Oceanic islands and continental islands.

Oceanic islands (created by volcanic activity or tectonic plates movement) are barren rock at the time of their formation. Where plants, insects and birds can easily colonised, mammal species are generally absent from oceanic islands. Since mammals are generally effective bird-predators, and often active on the ground, their absence on these islands made the flightless lifestyle ideal, and probably more than 1,600 flightless species evolved on these islands[3].

“So there are no mammals.  What about other predators?”


An artist’s rendition of a Haast’s eagle attacking moa. Credit: John Megahan

Being mammal-free doesn’t mean missing all kind of predators. Raptors are also efficient predators, and are present on many oceanic islands. So why don’t raptors prevent the evolution of flightlessness? In some cases, when only one or a few raptor species are present on islands, they don’t specialise on eating birds and rather adopt a generalist diet[4]. Their predation pressure is relaxed and becomes too low to maintain the need of a rapid escape by flying for ground-dwelling birds. Because conserving flying ability consumes lot of energy, birds that invested this energy in something else than flight performed better. To use Diamond’s analogy (1981)[5]: “A winged rail on a predator-free island is like a 60kg backpacker forced eternally to carry 15kg of bricks and to regurgitate half of each meal.” Hence, some mammal-free islands can give way to flightlessness because other non-mammal predators are not applying enough predatory pressure.

On the other hand, continental islands have different features. These islands are connected to mainlands by underwater landmass that can link the two during glacial periods. For example, islands such as Madagascar, New Guinea, Borneo and Tasmania. Since species have opportunities to disperse between the two, these islands possess a sample of the wildlife present on the continent, including mammals, whose predation prevents birds from evolving flightless. However, two continental islands carry exceptions! Both New Guinea and Tasmania are home to a species of flightless bird each: The New Guinea flightless rail (Megacrex inepta) and the Tasmanian native-hen (Tribonyx mortierii), respectively, both from the rail family (Rallidae). These birds have totally lost their flight ability on islands, while living alongside mammal predators. Amazing!

“What’s so special about the New Guinea flightless rail 

and the Tasmanian native-hen?”


Except Ratites, the New Guinea flightless rail (left) and the Tasmanian native-hen (right, credit: Felix Wilson) are the only two land birds to evolve flightless alongside predators.

[Note: The Tasmanian native-hen’s story is slightly more complex since it may have evolved flightless on the Australian mainland[6], but it will be the subject of a subsequent article.]

2) Flightlessness can evolve on continents with predators

Yes! Birds can also evolve flightless on continents! It actually happened 7 times independently. However, it did not happen randomly, instead, it’s only present in two specific habitat types.

  • In four occasions (creating 23 different species after speciation), birds have evolved flightless on continents, around coastal areas: 1) the great auk in North Atlantic (America to Europe – extinct), 2) the steamer-ducks in southern South America, 3) the goose-size sea-duck (Chendytes lawi – extinct) on the Californian coast, and 4) penguins, on all continents of the South Hemisphere.
  • In three other occasions (creating 4 species), species became flightless in isolated high-altitude lakes of the Andean mountains, but only species of grebes[7]: 1) the Atitlán grebe (Podilymbus giga, elevation 1,562 m – extinct), 2) the Colombian grebe (Podiceps andinus, elevation 3,000 m – extinct), 3) the Titicaca grebe (Rouandia microptera, elevation 3,840 m), and 4) the Junín grebe (Podiceps taczanowskii, elevation 4,080 m).

“Why are coastal areas and high lakes the only places on continents to host flightless birds?”

The idea of evolving flightless on continents could be puzzling because they support a diverse community of predators. To conclude on that argument once and for all that the absence of predators may not be the ultimate condition, there is a striking example occurring in New Zealand, one of the most renowned hotspots for flightless species. The Finsch’s duck (Chenonetta finschi – now extinct) was flightless. And while New Zealand has always been free from mammal predators during its evolutionary times, studies have revealed that the Finsch’s duck was flying during almost 10,000 years before finally starting to lose its flight ability![8]. Something else than the absence of predators must have triggered this change. And as in all the examples cited before, some species have evolved flightless in the presence of mammal predators, on both island and continents.

“So what is the main driver if not the absence of mammal predators?”

The main driver explaining flightlessness is the access to a stable habitat year-round.

A possible explanation of why the Finsch’s duck didn’t lose flight during 10,000 years is that the climate at the time didn’t permit an optimal use of habitat. As a glacial period was ending, new favourable and stable habitats were created, and food supply was probably less fluctuating[8]. Flight is an advantage when you’re limited by food seasonality as you can increase distances to find food.

When blown out onto new islands, birds often arrived in paradises with stable environment with year-round food supply and habitats, with no need to disperse. Moreover, the absence of mammal predators remove the need to escape predators by flying. These optimum conditions were present on over 800 islands worldwide, rapidly promoting convergent evolution of many hundreds of flightless birds (on Pacific islands in particular, where between 500 and 1,600 flightless species were present[3]).

Flightless Cormorant Phalacrocorax harrisi Cristobal serrano

The flightless cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi) from the Galápagos Islands.
Credit: Cristobal Serrano

From another perspective, habitat features can also facilitate escape from predators, and that’s why all birds evolving flightless on continents are aquatic birds: birds on coastal areas and high-altitude lakes specialised in the aquatic environment, reallocating the energy to improve features for diving and swimming[9]. In that regard, it is interesting to note that the flightless Junín grebe is sympatric to the Junín rail (Laterallus tuerosi): they exploit the same lake and surrounding areas. Rails are the bird family who are most prone to flightlessness, but in spite of everything the Junín rail retains its flying abilities, most probably because its habitat around the lake does not permit a safe escape without flight.

So maybe only aquatic flightless birds are able to escape predators? In that case, we shouldn’t find flightless land birds living alongside mammal predators…?

But they exist in Tasmania and New Guinea!

Evolution of mammals in these two places was quite unique. Indeed, marsupial mammals dominated environments for millions of years, and if placental mammals were also present, they were only small species of bat and rodents. The type of predatory pressure applied by marsupials may explain the differences, although many big carnivorous marsupials (marsupial “lion” and “tiger”, and fanged kangaroos) existed, more detailed answers are probably found in their ecological traits.

In sum, while no predation is optimum, the low level of predation is a better explanation to the loss of flight in birds.

Ultimate reasons why birds become flightless is stable habitat year-round

Once this condition is fulfilled, flightlessness in birds is most likely to occur:

  • on islands where the predation rate is absent or relaxed (lack of placental mammals)
  • on continent (for aquatic species), when the reallocation of resources (in terms of energy) to increase diving abilities is more successful

The evolutionary story of flightlessness in birds is outlined, but gaps remain; and more scientific evidence is needed to make stronger conclusions. In particular, if year-round habitat stability is hypothesised as the main driver of flightlessness in aquatic birds, is has not always been directly proven[9, 10].

Surprisingly, studies on fossil bats may also help resolving some mysteries and especially to clarify the specific role of predation (and predator-type) on the process of flightlessness. As hypotheses tended to use insularity and the lack of predators to explain walking pattern in bats (at least two New Zealand species), a new species of walking bat discovered in Northern Australia is shifting minds.

More generally, impediments at this endeavour are simply due to our lack of knowledge about species’ biology. In particular, semi-flightless birds have the potential to reveal precious information to break down the steps of the process. Both flightless and semi-flightless species have still a lot of evolutionary stories to tell us. The real blow is that most of these unique species may disappear before giving away all their secrets.

In the meantime, next article will develop questionings about species’ potential to become flightless (why these ones and why no more?) and the proximate causes of that process.

*Proximate and ultimate causes: a proximate cause is an event that is immediately responsible for causing the observed result (e.g., a hole in a boat’s hull caused shipwreck). An ultimate cause is usually thought of as the “real” reason something occurred (e.g., the boat sank because it hit a rock).


[1] Livezey, B.C. (2003) Evolution of flightlessness in rails (Gruiformes, Rallidae). American Ornithologists’ Union.

[2] Roots, C. (2006) Flightless birds. Greenwood Publishing Group.

[3] Steadman, D.W. (2006) Extinction and biogeography of tropical Pacific birds. University of Chicago Press.

[4] Wright, N.A., Steadman, D.W. & Witt, C.C. (2016) Predictable evolution toward flightlessness in volant island birds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, 4765-4770.

[5] Diamond, J.M. (1981) Flightlessness and fear of flying in island species. Nature, 293, 507-508.

[6] Johnson, C.N. & Wroe, S. (2003) Causes of extinction of vertebrates during the Holocene of mainland Australia: arrival of the dingo, or human impact? The Holocene, 13, 941-948.

[7] Livezey, B.C. (1989) Flightlessness in grebes (Aves, Podicipedidae): its independent evolution in three genera. Evolution, 43, 29-54.

[8] Worthy, T.H. (1988) Loss of flight ability in the extinct New Zealand duck Euryanas finschi. Journal of Zoology, 215, 619-628.

[9] McCall, R.A., Nee, S. & Harvey, P.H. (1998) The role of wing length in the evolution of avian flightlessness. Evolutionary Ecology, 12, 569-580.

[10] Roff, D.A. (1994) The evolution of flightlessness: Is history important? Evolutionary Ecology, 8, 639-657.


*All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members.



by Emily Flies, 27th April at 15:52

Historically, cities were considered centres for filth, disease, violence and amoral behaviour. Even today, urbanization has been linked to disease emergence and some diseases are more prevalent or spread faster in cities. However, many public health professionals argue that the city dwellers of today experience health benefits from improved access to healthcare, economic opportunities and vibrant social settings. So who’s right and what’s really happening with health in cities?

The relationship between urbanization and health is messy and constantly changing. But with a rapidly urbanizing world, its important for us to anticipate the health challenges of future city dwellers so we can do our best to ensure they are as healthy as possible. So here we take a look at the good, the bad and the unknown of urban health.


The streets of Stuyvesant Heights, Brooklyn, New York, 1891. Available at:

Sanitation, slums, and disease

Rapid urbanization is associated with poor infrastructure, overcrowding, and unsanitary conditions. Slum health is one component of urban health, and the United Nations estimates that over 1 billion people currently living in slums and there will be 2 billion slum-dwellers by the year 2030.

Unsanitary conditions can lead to high rates of intestinal parasites, particularly in children. In the slums of Karachi, Pakistan, over 52% of children are infected with parasites. Unsanitary conditions also facilitate the transmission of rodent-borne diseases like plague and leptospirosis.

One of the main unifying characteristics of all cities, regardless of their GDP per capita, is the high density of the population. Unsurprisingly, diseases that are transmitted from human to human can thrive in densely populated cities. For example, cities have higher rates of tuberculosis, with the highest rates being in the poorest areas of the city. Cities can also contribute to the transmission of emerging diseases like HIV, Zika, influenza and ebola.


13th Compound, Dharavi, Mumbai. Photo: Akshay Mahajan. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. available at:

The economic and employment opportunities in cities also attract migrants from rural areas or from neighbouring cities. These influxing people bring with them whatever infections they carry (like schistosomiasis or African trypanosomiasis). Rural-urban migrants are often naïve to the diseases of the city and are often forced to live in sub-optimal, non-hygienic environments, thus facilitating the continued transmission of diseases like cutaneous leishmaniasis.

Health benefits of city living

On the other hand, cities of more developed countries are havens of culture, art, social interaction and good food. They are the economic engines of the world; 600 of the world’s cities hold 1/5 of the global population but generate 60% of the global GDP. People living in these metropoles have greater access to medical facilities, pharmacies, gyms, grocery stores and other “salutatory” (health promoting) features. Indeed, many of these amenities are accessible on foot, which is why urbanites are more likely to walk as transportation than their suburban or rural counter parts.


A bird eye view of Rio de Janiero

Public health and infrastructure advances in cities in rich nations and affluent areas of cities in developing nations have led to a generally healthier urban population, compared to rural populations. Urban residents in developed countries are protected by regulations that limit the amount of air and water pollution, indoor smoking, CO2 emissions from cars, etc that can negatively impact the health of urbanites in developing nations. Public health advances in many cities have reduced the scourges of infectious diseases (especially tuberculosis, influenza and HIV) that devastated their populations throughout the 20th century. However, replacing this infectious disease burden is the rise of chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease that seem to fill the void left by “cured” infectious diseases. It is currently unclear, however, why these chronic “lifestyle” diseases are rising in developed nations and urban areas.

Hope for the future

The economic and public health advances of cities, have led to an “urban advantage” on measurements of health. But significant disparities exist and the health of the urban poor is the worst of any demographic.


Low-tech public health solutions can have a big impact on the wellness of residents in slums and low-income urban areas. For example, replacing dirt floors with cement led to a 78% reduction in parasitic infestations, 49% reduction in diarrhea, 81% reduction in anaemia, a 36 – 96% improvement in cognitive development in young children, and made adult residents happier (lower rates of depression and stress and higher self reported levels of satisfaction). An examination of the mortality rates in major cities over the last few decades revealed that the provision of clean water was responsible for nearly half of the total mortality reduction in major cities, three-quarters of the infant mortality reduction, and nearly two-thirds of the child mortality reduction. This same study found that the rate of return to these technologies was greater than 23 to 1 with a cost per life-year saved by clean water of about $500 in 2003 dollars. Similarly, the addition of biodiverse urban green spaces (BUGS) have been connected to myriad health benefits from improved cognitive function to reduced obesity and improved birth weights.

Thankfully, several initiatives are in place to help cities implement these solutions and5 improve the health of urbanites. The United Nation’s Healthy Cities initiative has over 1000 cities committed to ensuring that human well-being is at the centre of local development efforts. The New Urban Agenda, adopted by the UN in 2016 explicitly encourages the reduction of disparity in cities and the reinforcing health. With these initiatives and continued research to explain the recent rise of allergic and autoimmune diseases and the characteristics of cities that impact human health, city dwellers of the future can enjoy long and healthy lives.


*All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members.



A peek into the legal and political aspects of protecting indigenous ‘intellectual property’

by Hanh Nguyen, 27th February at 10:32 AM

*All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members.


According to the Commission on Intellectual Property Rights Report (2002), scientists at the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) patented a chemical in the Hoodia cactus called P57, an appetite suppressant that was then sold to a company called Phytopharm, who then granted its licenses to the pharmaceutical company Pfizer to make into a diet pill. The potential profit from this drug was predicted to be around 7 billion USD. All the while, the San hunters of the Kalahari, one of the oldest communities in Southern Africa who had been using the same cactus to subdue hunger while hunting, were never informed nor compensated. This is but one of many cases of ‘biopiracy’ happening all over the world.


Right: San hunters stalking prey using bows and poisoned arrows. Left: San children playing together ©Christian Boix

Biopiracy happens when a patent is granted for a supposedly ‘new invention’ that actually derived from resources and knowledge that belonged to an indigenous community, most often without their consent (Zainol et al. 2011). Biopiracy is unfortunately prominent within bioprospecting, which refers to the discovery of biological compounds and genes from naturally occurring sources that can be extracted to develop new drugs, antibiotic compounds, pesticides and countless other commercial and industrial applications. One factor that contributes greatly to the problem is that biopiracy is not recognised as a tort or a crime and as a consequence, lacks proper punishments (Nagan et al. 2010). International treaties were regarded by several sources to be ineffective in dealing with biopiracy (Kelter 2014; Smith 2014). Laws and jurisdictions at different levels may accidentally override each other, while foreign and customary laws might be overlooked and disregarded altogether (Robinson 2013).

Traditional knowledge is often referred to ancient heritages that can be hundreds of years old and potentially known to all ‘tribe’ members (Smith 2014), and also usually the number one target for biopiracy. In many cases, intellectual property laws were used in an attempt to protect traditional knowledge. The problem, however, lies in how ‘intellectual property’ is usually defined. Intellectual property laws are mostly Western based, while ‘traditional knowledge’ usually does not belong in modern Western society. Terms and definitions are often not universal, and Western ideals might become inappropriate in the context of different societies. For example, ‘invention’, by definition, cannot have been known by others, published or sold within one year of patent application date (Kelter 2014), but this is obviously not the case with traditional knowledge. Another tool used to combat biopiracy, patent laws, also generally requires the protected object to have an owner, or shared ownership (Dutfield, 2000). Traditional knowledge, as mentioned above, can date back hundreds of years or more, making it impossible to identify an ‘inventor’, or said ‘inventor’ could have been long dead. And while traditional knowledge can be sometimes viewed by the tribe members as belong to the tribe, other times they don’t wish to claim individual ownership over it (Smith 2014). Another point is that, according to the US Patent Act, nature laws, phenomena and abstract ideas cannot be granted patent, and so knowledge itself cannot be patentable subject (Kuruk 2007). Under these circumstances, it is nearly impossible for traditional knowledge involving biological resources to be protected under these laws. Unfortunately, things that are not covered or protected by intellectual property rights are usually perceived by the public to be free to use, meaning it can be exploited by anyone without concern for or benefit sharing with the original holder (Tedlock 2006).

Perhaps the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which was negotiated in 1994 and is currently regarded as the most well-known treaty regarding intellectual property (Timmermans 2003), is the best example of this problem. The preamble of the agreement stated that it “desired to reduce distortions and impediments to international trade, and taking into account the need to promote effective and adequate protection of intellectual property rights” (TRIPS preamble). Countries that are under the TRIPS Agreement would have to incorporate its detailed principles for the protection of intellectual property into their national legislations. However, TRIPS was based on the US legal concept of intellectual property rights, and was heavily influenced by the US laws and the Western conception of intellectual property protection (Kelter 2014). Article 27.3(b) of the TRIPS Agreement allows states to not allow the patent of living organisms that fit under the criteria of ’plants and animals other than micro-organisms, and essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals other than non-biological and microbiological processes’ (Hamilton 2006a). Most indigenous knowledge falls under this criteria, and therefore can be denied protection under TRIPS. On the other hand, TRIPS allows resources or knowledge to be granted patents with minimal concern about their origins, making it possible for patents to be granted without the need to acquire informed consent from the origin owner or state (Zainol et al. 2011, Kelter 2014). TRIPS only assists the cultures that conform to it. If an indigenous community refuses to change their laws in accordance to Western laws because of traditional custom or any reason at all, they will not benefit from TRIPS. Because of this, TRIPS causes much dissatisfaction. Many sources even view TRIPS as a facilitator for biopiracy (Liang 2011, Zainol et al. 2011) and have argued that TRIPS did not actually provide any more protection for traditional knowledge than other intellectual property system that had already been seen as ineffective (Dagne 2014).

The International Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), regarded as being better than TRIPS by some criteria, was another effort created to protect developing countries. Unlike TRIPS, the CBD gave states sovereignty over their biological resources and traditional knowledge (Zainol et al. 2011). In 2010, the CBD adopted the Nagoya Protocol to address this issue. Under the protocol, governments have the right to grant access to their biological resources in accordance with their national legislations rather than one designated for them. At the same time, said access needs to be granted to users prior to research on the basis of mutual agreements between users and the provider country. Each side was also under obligation to obtain consents from the appropriate indigenous community, keep them involve with the process and share the benefit on mutually agreed terms. The Protocol also requests that dispute settlement mechanisms be included in previously mentioned terms. But of course, the concept of ‘sovereignty’ itself causes much controversial in the scientific community, with many being in doubt of its relevancy in the age of globalisation and the presence of organisations such as the UN, the EU, and the WTO. It might also lead to clashes between states who both seek to assert jurisdiction over a biological resource. Still, as made clear in the Protocol, sovereignty doesn’t mean extraterritorial enforcement is impossible. A state whose resources have been stolen and brought out of state can petition companies overseas to nullify patents granted for said resources. The CBD is by no mean perfect, but it does have the interests of developing countries and the protection of biodiversity at heart.

Bioprospecting is more than just finding new substances to use. Human ethics are involved through the way in which the indigenous communities and their traditional knowledge are protected. Any benefit gained from a product derived from traditional knowledge should be shared with the communities and consent should be asked beforehand. Intellectual property laws can potentially become more efficient if combined with sui generis factors, meaning individual state can tweak them to make them suitable for the situation (Dagne 2014). Suggestions have been made for a reframing of terms and redefinition of concepts that are involved with intellectual property laws. Hamilton (2006b) proposed that a ‘playground’, in which different notions of property and benefits could be brought to the picnic, would be the best way to deal with biopiracy. Further, several approaches to what can be counted as ‘natural’ and ‘invention’ should also be taken into account. It is a complex problem to resolve, but one worth pursuing for equity’s sake.


Dagne, T. (2014) Protecting Traditional Knowledge in International Intellectual Property Law: Imperatives for Protection and Choice of Modalities. J. Marshall Rev. Intell. Prop. L., 14, 25 – 49.

Dutfield, G. (2000) The public and private domains: Intellectual property rights in traditional knowledge. Science Communication, 21, 274–295.

Hamilton, C. (2006a) Biodiversity, biopiracy and benefits: what allegations of biopiracy tell us about intellectual property. Developing World Bioethics, 6, 158-173.

Hamilton, C. (2006b) ‘Biopiracy’ as a challenge to intellectual property rights systems. Development, 49, 94–100

Kelter, K.A. (2014) Pirate patents: arguing for improved biopiracy prevention and protection of indigenous rights through a new legislative model. Suffolk University Law Review, 47, 373-396

Kuruk, P. (2007) Goading a reluctant dinosaur: mutual recognition agreements as a policy response to the misappropriation of foreign traditional knowledge in the United States. Pepperdine Law Review, 34.

Liang, B.A. (2011) Global governance: Promoting biodiversity and protecting indigenous communities against biopiracy. Journal of Commercial Biotechnology, 17, 248–253.

Nagan, W., Mordujovich, E., Otvos, K. & Taylor, J. (2010) Misappropriation of Shuar Traditional Knowledge (TK) and trade secrets: a case study on biopiracy in the Amazon. Journal of Technology Law & Policy, 1, 9-63.

Robinson, D.F. (2013) Legal geographies of intellectual property, ‘traditional’ knowledge and biodiversity: experiencing conventions, laws, customary law, and karma in Thailand. Geographical Research, 51, 375-386.

Tedlock, B. (2006) Indigenous heritage and biopiracy in the age of intellectual property rights. Explore (New York, N.Y.), 2, 256-259.

Timmermans, K. (2003) Intellectual property rights and traditional medicine: policy dilemmas at the interface. Social Science & Medicine, 57, 745-756.

Zainol, Z., Amin, L., Akpoviri, F. & Ramli, R. (n.d) Biopiracy and states’ sovereignty over their biological resources. African Journal Of Biotechnology, 10, 12395-12408.

“Know where you stand”, the Centre of Excellence for Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) Masterclass ‘Indigenous community engagement in a field setting: Working on Country‘

by Tessa Smith, 29th January at 11:46 AM

*All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members.


Between 15th and 19th of January, Matthew McDowell and I represented the DEEP Group at the 2018 CABAH Masterclass ‘Indigenous community engagement in a field setting: Working on Country’ , hosted by Monash University (Wurundjeri land) and the Taungurung Clans in Melbourne.

Over the five days we heard talks from representatives from Monash University Indigenous Studies Centre, James Cook University (JCU) and the Taungurung Clans, participated in discussions on set readings and visited historic sites around Central Victoria with our hosts. I was excited to return to Monash Clayton Campus, the location of my undergraduate studies in science.


Masterclass participants and leaders, Monash University, Clayton Campus, 16th of January 2018 .Clockwise: Holly Jones-Amin (Monash), Chantal Knowles (Queensland Museum), Matthew McDowell (UTas), Shane Ingrey (UNSW), Darren Curnoe (UNSW), Martin Nakata (JCU), Mary O’Malley (UOW), Matilda Handsley-Davis (UOA), Lynette Russell (Monash), Ian McNiven (Monash), Sandra Humphry (UOW), Bruno David (Monash), Kasih Norman (UOW), Aara Welz (UOW), Chris Unwin (Monash), Mady Kelly (Monash), Tessa Smith (UTas), Daniel Derouet (Monash), Jeremy Ash (Monash), Lauren Linnenlucke (JCU), Brit Asmussen (Queensland Museum).

The first two days saw us meet and get to know the research interests of Masterclass participants. We spanned a large range of fields, including education, journalism, geochronology, palaeoecology, museum studies, archaeology and microbiology. The group included enthusiasm for tooth microbes, native rats, osl dating, medicinal plants, exhibition curation, rock art, lapita pottery and bugs.

Presentations by Monash and JCU staff were highly informative, imparting a great deal of the knowledge they had built up over their careers (over 100 years of combined experience working with indigenous groups). The discussions challenged us: the confrontation with the bleak history of western science in Australia, the concepts of alternatives to the linear timeline that we are so used to as a paleoecologist, alternative ways knowing through songlines, stories, and so on. We were introduced to some guiding principles of collaborative research indigenous groups, with a quote that stuck with us: “We cannot own the outcome if we do not own the process.”

A presentation by Monash PhD Candidate Chris Urwin on his fieldwork in Orokolo Bay, Papua New Guinea gave us a look at how the process worked for a younger researcher. Chris’ talk produced some good suggestions for working in this area:

  • Having a translator
  • Leaving time to conduct meetings over several days
  • Communication of results in multiple forms
    • Papers
    • Theses
    • Posters (in several languages)
    • Reports tailored for each clan group

We heard from Dr. Shannon Faulkhead from the Monash Country Lines Archive about their project making 3D animations to assist in intergenerational language preservation. The archive was collaborating with communities around Australia (including the Taungurung) and had produced at least 15 animations since their establishment in 2014. In addition to their participation in the Monash Country Lines Archive, Aunty Lee Healy, Linguist and Project Coordinator with Taungurung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, with the help of Buxton Primary School students had created an app for learning Taungurung language. The app can be downloaded from the apple store (not yet available for android).


The Taungurung Language app (Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages).

On our field trip we visited rock wells at the Mount Wombat-Garden Range Nature Conservation Reserve in Strathbogie. Three wells were known from the site, but more may exist under vegetation. Our hosts from Taungurung Clans (and coincidently past residents of my hometown Healesville), Aunty Lee Healy, Shane Monk and Angela Moate explained that they had been informed of the presence of the rock wells by a member of the public, and they had since been able to register the area as an indigenous site. The wells were formed from holes or defects in hard rock that hold water. Each hole can be enlarged by the process of lighting fire inside, quickly cooling with water to crack the rock of the edges followed by grinding the edges and removing the rock debris. The wells are covered by a flat stone to prevent animals falling in, or the water evaporating out.


Shane Monk demonstrating the depth of a rock well. Note the rock cover that prevents evaporation. This well probably holds up to 100L of water.  Mount Wombat-Garden Range Nature Conservation Reserve (T.Smith).

Our hosts then took us to a scar tree where a shield or temporary shelter has been cut from the tree. The scar was nearly 2m tall, and it was cut all the way down to the ground, a feature that is uncommon for scar trees in Australia. They then took us to a local creek where they showed us axe sharpening grooves that had been cut into the granite of the creek bed. The grooves were numerous, and some were quite deep. As the weather on the day of visitation was around 37°C, we could see why Aboriginal people would choose this location to return to over many generations. There were some local families enjoying the cool water in the swimming holes while we were there.


Stone axe sharpening grooves in granite outcrop, Seven Creeks, Taungurung Country. The greenstone axes were quarried from Mount William. (T.Smith).

The educational background of Matt and I was deemed ‘hard sciences’, which have historically only asked for permission to complete scientific studies on indigenous managed lands rather than working collaboratively from project inception. This often leads to undesirable end results. One PhD candidate from the ‘hard sciences’ I knew had asked an indigenous group for permission to do geological research on their land, and after a stressful four months, had been rejected. Throughout the Masterclass I had thought that if that PhD student had been able to undertake cultural awareness training and education on research collaborations like the Monash Masterclass, they would have been able to make more inclusive decisions that may have led to a better outcome for all parties over a longer period of time.

Matt and I would like to thank Masterclass organisers and hosts at Monash and Taungurung clans for a great week.