Only about 110 birds of a newly identified Australian species survive in the wild, according to research published in the journal Conservation Genetics.
Scientists already knew about the western ground parrot’s existence, but didn’t realize the western and eastern varieties were different enough to be separate species.
The scientists analyzed DNA preserved in museum collections of 27 ground parrots from 17 locations. Some of the specimens were over 160 years old. They found a more than 5 percent variation in a mitochondrial DNA marker, which the researchers considered sufficient justification to designate a separate species.
The western ground parrot (Pezoporus flaviventris) split off from the eastern variety (P. wallicus) about two million years ago, said the researchers. The parrots live on opposite ends of southern Australia.
The two species of ground parrot are examples of what biologists call cryptic species. They appear physically similar, but are actually separate species.
Almost the entire population of western ground parrot lives in a single national park. A wildfire or the introduction of a non-native predator like cats could rapidly wipe out the last birds, warned one of the researchers, Dr. Stephen Murphy of the Australian Wildlife Confederacy.
Photo: An adult Western ground parrot; Wikimedia Commons