New study discovers wekas' secret role in New Zealand's forests

If you've ever been camping near bush, chances are you've been raided by our native weka.

They're a controversial part of New Zealand's ecosystem. The small brown flightless birds are best known for their curiosity and cheekiness - as well as their taste in native birds' eggs, geckos and wetas.

But now researchers have found they have another important job in the environment. A new study authored by Jo Carpenter, a University of Canterbury ecology PhD student based at Landcare Research, discovered they are important seed dispersers for some New Zealand plants.

"What I was interested in understanding was what positive ecosystem benefits they can bring in terms of seed dispersal, so how effective they are at spreading the seeds of birds around the landscape," she told Newshub.

By attaching small GPS trackers to 40 weka at three South Island sites, Carpenter was able to closely study the distance the flightless birds traveled and what they are eating.

"These tags allowed us to see where the weka were every 15 minutes, then we also measured how long it takes a seed to pass through a weka gut," Carpenter told Newshub.

While some of the birds dispersed hinau seeds as far as two kilometres from the tree of origin, their diets are also influenced by human interaction.

"What we found was that the weka that spend time at camp sites around people are less effective seed dispersers than their more remote counterparts," Carpenter says.

Study co-author, University of Canterbury ecology professor Dave Kelly, found there's more to the weka than just being labeled sandwich stealers.

"We shouldn't just think of them as being predators of native insects and things that bother people," he told Newshub.

"When they're camping they're also doing a really useful job in keeping the vegetation going."

Our native weka, cheeky, curious - and with a crucial role to play in our ecosystem.