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Australia’s rare, elusive night parrot may not see that well in the dark

Andrew Cuomo

Australia’s night parrot is nocturnal, but the rare and elusive bird may not actually be able to see very well in the dark, according to a new study.

In fact, the bird’s vision is likely similar to that of daytime parrots.

The fact that this parrot isn’t adapted to living in the dark, despite its nocturnal status, could be contributing to its critically endangered status.

The study published Tuesday in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Night Parrots must be able to find their way at night — to find food, avoid obstacles while flying, and escape predators,” said Vera Weisbecker, study author and associate professor in evolutionary biology at the Flinders University’s College of Science and Engineering, in a statement.

“We therefore expect their visual system to show adaptations for seeing in the dark, similar to other nocturnal birds — New Zealand’s Kakapo parrot and owls with enlarged eyes, for example. However, we found that this wasn’t the case.”

This species is so rare that the researchers only had one intact skull to scan and study. They compared the CT scans with those from skulls of related parrots.

The researchers discovered that the night parrot had eyes similar in size to other parrots. It also had smaller optic nerves and lobes. This means that the night parrot has sensitive vision, but it’s not great for seeing in the dark. It also has poor resolution, so it can’t distinguish between obstacles, like wire fencing in the Australian outback, or predators coming after it.

Fencing is used in the Australian outback to contain livestock and keep predators away.

“These results suggest that removal of unused fences should be a priority in areas where night parrots are known to occur,” said Nick Leseberg, study coauthor, night parrot specialist and doctoral student from the University of Queensland’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, in a statement.

“However, we probably can’t go entirely without fences — stock needs to be managed with fences, and some forms of predator exclusion could be important for protecting the Night Parrot. We therefore need to be very careful with our fencing strategies, at least by increasing the visibility of wire fences, but alternatives such as low-tension electric fencing could be even better.”

A rare breed

The specimen studied was actually found in 1990 by Australian Museum bird expert Walter Boles.

“He spotted its mummified body by accident, lying by the side of the road after apparently being hit by a truck — it is amazing that its skull stayed intact,” Weisbecker said.

The bird species was first recorded in 1845, but after 1912, it seemed to disappear.

The bird is so rare that it was thought to be extinct for the majority of the 20th century.

Night parrots are one of only two nocturnal parrot species in the world. The other is the Kakapo in New Zealand. Night parrots keep themselves well hidden in the Australian outback.

After the mummified bird was found in 1990, it would be another 23 years before they were spotted living in the wild.

Now, scientists and conservationists work to protect the species.

“The species is so elusive that we do not even know how many individuals are left,” said Andrew Iwaniuk, study coauthor and biologist at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, in a statement. “To conserve the species, it is critical that we understand its behavioural needs and capabilities, but these are nearly impossible to observe.”

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