Comparative spatial analysis of species biodiversity and life history evolution in Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds

A project co-ordinated through the Institute of Natural Sciences, Massey University, and supervised by James Dale and Mihai Valcu

Project Summary

The term biodiversity typically refers to the concept of diversity of species richness. However, an under-appreciated component of biodiversity is diversity in species life histories. Birds are a highly specious vertebrate taxon (~9800 species) that provides a unique opportunity to gain knowledge about the evolution of life-history traits. First, birds display a phenomenal diversity in terms of body sizes, foraging habits, longevity, migration, sociality, sexual dimorphism, mating strategies, parental care behaviour, coloration, song and breeding displays. Second, there are vast stores of data on avian natural history, morphology, demography and geographic ranges available through decades of dedicated research by a huge numbers of ornithologists. Third, because birds are conspicuous and abundant high trophic feeders, they serve as key indicators for environmental health. Birds offer the most cost-effective system towards understanding global loss of biodiversity, biodiversity hotspots and the effects of climate change. This study will evaluate life history variation in all Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic (ANZA) birds across species and space.

Our basic knowledge of the biological characteristics of birds varies hugely on a global geographic scale. Birds from the ANZA region in particular are well described in terms of geographic distribution, morphology and behaviour. However in order to answer questions about the biodiversity of life history strategies, this information needs to be compiled into a database that can be used for hypothesis testing. By uniting vast data resources into a robust theoretical and conceptual framework, this project will provide the raw material for powerful investigations into fundamental ecological and evolutionary questions such as: 1) determining the relationship between variation in basic life history and sexual sexual selection, 2) determining the life-history strategies that pre-dispose birds to adapting to climate change, and 3) determining the relationship between life-history diversity and species diversity.

Figure 1. Stitchbird

Figure 2. Red Wattlebird


Figure 3. Fantail