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Charismatic but calculated: the social lives of Purple-crowned Fairywrens with Dr Niki Teunissen

Today we have the pleasure of speaking with behavioural ecologist and Purple-crowned Fairywren specialist, Dr Niki Teunissen. She has spent the last 8 years living and working in the remote Kimberley region of north-western Australia to study the intricate lives of these small, lively, socially fascinating birds. Niki talks us through her research interests: what started as her Masters project and how that evolved into her PhD and now post-doctoral research focus, and provides her top career advice for people like YOU looking to pursue a career in wildlife research.

Charismatic but calculated: the social lives of Purple-crowned Fairywrens with Dr Niki Teunissen | #itsawildlife

Purple-crowned Fairywrens are small, charismatic birds that live in complex social groups and are found in the fringing riparian vegetation along the tropical waterways of northern Australia. Although they weigh only 10 g each, the Purple-crowned Fairywren is actually the largest fairywren species in Australia!

CHARISMATIC BUT CALCULATED

Niki’s Masters project worked on understanding group living using time-budget observations in the field to look at how the birds spent their time, whether there were benefits for birds living in larger groups and studying the social interactions between group members. Although group living on the whole was largely harmonious for the fairywrens, Niki found that related birds had more loving, affiliative interactions than unrelated birds that are of the same sex, who could be considered reproductive competitors.

For her PhD, Niki took a deep dive into cooperative breeding in the fairywrens, an arrangement where a pair of dominant birds will breed and other subordinate birds in the group are helpers, and will assist the dominant pair with nest defense and raising chicks. Although this fascinating behaviour makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective, as animals should never choose not to have young of their own.

Niki found that what might look like an altruistic behaviour from the outset was in fact a clever calculation by the subordinate helper birds. Helpers were most likely to defend chicks if they had a chance of becoming a breeder within the group in the near future, and in this way, they were saving their future group members (helpers). As for feeding chicks in the nest, helpers were most likely to feed chicks if they had close social bonds with the dominant breeding pair: if they are related and have breeding potential. How’s that for long-term visions and planning?

A THREATENED SPECIES

Unfortunately, the western subspecies of the Purple-crowned Fairywren that Niki and her team study is listed as a threatened species. Niki explained the factors that have contributed to this listing: Unlike other fairywren species, the Purple-crowned Fairywren is a riparian habitat specialist, meaning it relies on the presence of a spiky palm-like plant, Pandanus aquaticus within a strip of vegetation either side of the tropical waterways it inhabits. This plant is important for feeding, breeding and shelter and so threats to the Pandanus such as hot out-of-season wildfire and trampling by introduced cattle threaten the persistence of the fairywrens.

Part of Niki’s research involves monitoring this population at an individual level by banding the birds in order to understand the trends and inform land management that will protect the habitat and the fairywrens into the future. Tracking individuals throughout their lives also creates a Big Brother-like scenario on the creeks and has revealed some incredible results. To hear more about this, listen to Niki on the #itsawildlife podcast.

NIKI’S JOURNEY

Niki has always been fascinated by behavioural ecology – understanding the driving mechanisms behind why animals do what they do. From the moment she started working with the Purple-crowned Fairywrens, she became hooked and 8 years on, Niki and her team are still working to answer questions that will assist our understanding of their ecology and our capacity to conserve these threatened birds into the future.

The Purple-crowned Fairywrens are fascinating little birds… the more we learn, the more questions we have!

ADVICE FOR STARTING YOUR CAREER IN CONSERVATION

When looking to start your journey in research, Niki recommends volunteering and trying to expose yourself to a variety of experiences to learn what fascinates you most. Before committing to a PhD it is important to know that you have chosen the right project and that you’ll be able to see it through to the end, after all, it’s a 3 or 4 year commitment!

As for translating your passion for wildlife conservation into paid work, Niki recommends networking as well as internships which often lead to paid work. Although it can be a bit scary, reaching out to people you’ve never met, or asking people you know to introduce you to people you would like to work with can be incredibly valuable.

KEEP IN TOUCH

You can follow Niki’s research on Twitter @NikiTeunissen. Some articles that have been published in New Scientist, Cosmos Magazine and Australian Geographic about the work done by Niki and her team with the Purple-crowned Fairywrens.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Niki’s work with the fairywrens is run through Monash University and the fieldwork is conducted on Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, a property in the central Kimberley managed by Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

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