At the 5th National Malleefowl Forum held at Dubbo recently, some interesting facts emerged about the Ferries McDonald population.
DNA studies undertaken by Taneal Cope from Melbourne University revealed a great deal about the history of the malleefowl. For example, resistance to Gastrolobium sp, a member of the pea family found in the south west that contains the active ingredient in 1080 poison, indicates that at some time in the past the national population had shrunk down to small numbers in Western Australia, and that the species had repopulated into the eastern states via the exposed southern continental shelf during the last glacial maximum around 20,000 years BP bringing their chemical resistance with them.
More relevant to the local population, DEWNR’s Sharon Gillam explained that the percentage of active mounds in SA’s Murraylands region was on the bottom of the pile at 5% in 2013. NR SAMDB’s Chris Hedger explained that the Ferries McDonald population is suffering low hatching success because of low fertility. His response is to ‘keep an eye out’ for this group.
Nobody used the term ‘crisis’ to explain the predicament of the Ferries McDonald population but perhaps they should have. In the words of Malleefowl Preservation Group CEO, John DeJose, all the indicators are ‘heading south’, meaning they are getting progressively worse, not better.
A complication seems to be that the genetics of the locals is different from the nearest other populations. This was explained using just three different genotypes, with the Ferries McDonald population almost all of one of the three, showing little of the other two. Other populations seem to have a more even mix of all three.
So why would you try to preserve the uniqueness of a population showing declining reproductive success and risk local extinction by not taking immediate action?
Taronga Zoo’s Paul Andrew had an answer. He believes that introducing genes from other populations enhances survival success by giving greater genetic variability to the population. In his words, the alleles, or genes that give rise to physical characteristics, remain in the population, even if they are not expressed in the phenotype, or appearance of the individuals. The population as a whole then has a broader gene pool and has better prospects for long term survival through greater adaptability.
Great store has been placed on the monitoring of every aspect of the bird’s life. We have looked at the DNA of eggs in the mound and have found that the birds are not monogamous as previously thought and that nearly half of all eggs in a mound are as a result of two or more matings with different males. We have mapped the threats to the species by foxes, goats and fire. We have discovered new and ingenious ways to discover the mounds themselves by helicopter, aerial photography, and LIDAR scanning.
But when it comes to the bold move to do something to change the current paradigm we seem paralysed into inaction. It is almost as if we suddenly lose faith in accumulated data and demand more information before acting.
One of my young colleagues has explained that to step outside the established bureaucratic methodology is to bring down an avalanche of opprobrium upon oneself. Young graduates are keen to keep their jobs and, despite erratic funding regimes, hope to finance houses, families and lives. So building a career often steers choices, even when the facts point to alternatives less palatable to the system.
The accumulated wisdom seems to point to the likelihood that the Monarto South population will become locally extinct in the near future unless the obvious action of introduction of birds from neighbouring areas is taken.
Birds live for around twenty years. I suggest we have less than half that to rescue the situation.