Kea live near the mountains to avoid people, study finds

The world's only 'alpine parrot' didn't choose to live in the mountains, scientists say - it moved there to avoid us. 

A new study looking at the Kiwi bird's DNA and comparing it to that of the kākā - its sister parrot that lives in the forests - found little difference between the two when it comes to living at high altitudes. 

Instead, the kea "adapted to using such an open habitat because it was least disturbed by human activity".

"Our analyses do not identify major functional genomic differences between kea and kākā in pathways associated with high-altitude," the study, led by researchers at the University of Otago and published in journal Molecular Ecology, said.

"Rather, we find evidence that selective pressures on adaptations commonly found in alpine species are present in both... species, suggesting that selection for alpine adaptations has not driven their divergence."

In the past, it appears the two birds thrived at different times - the kea during glacial periods, and the kākā in between. But while the kea's habitat spread when things were icier, its population remained relatively stable - in contrast, kākā numbers boomed when it was warmer. 

This suggests the kea is "less able to capitalise on favourable conditions", raising concerns about where it goes next as the climate warms.

"If kea use the alpine zone as a retreat from human activity, then what other options do they have if the alpine zone disappears?" asks co-author Michael Knapp of the University of Otago's Department of Anatomy. 

"Will they increase their use of forest habitat, potentially increasing competition with kākā?"

There are between 3000 and 7000 kea left, according to the Department of Conservation, which calls the 2017 Bird of the Year winner "one of the most intelligent" in the world.

Other threats to existence include "predation, human impacts including lead poisoning, deliberate killing, and accidents with man-made items such as cars".

"Unfortunately, when it comes to conservation decisions we are often forced to invest in short-term 'emergency' solutions," said lead author Denise Martini, a PhD candidate.

"It is rare for researchers and conservation practitioners to have the opportunity to really look into prospects for the long-term survival of a species."