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Information from Waterbird Feathers

 Moulted waterbird feathers collected from wetlands around Australia were used in an innovative project which provided valuable information on the movement of waterbirds like pelicans, brolgas, and white-faced herons.  The Feather Map Project of Australia by the University of NSW (UNSW) and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) began in 2015.

Feathers collected around Australia by researchers and citizen scientists were scanned with an x-ray type machine using isotope analysis to measure the levels of sulphur, potassium and 23 other elements that are part of the qualities of every feather in the country. 

UNSW researcher Dr Kate Brandis explained, “The keratin a feather is made from becomes chemically inert once it’s fully grown. But while it’s growing it captures information about what the bird was feeding on, and that gives an elemental signature we can match to wetlands from a specific basin.”

The scanning of the 853 feathers from 553 wetlands across Australia found that 60% of these feathers could be traced back to the Murray-Darling Basin.  This included a brolga feather found at Karumba Point on the western coastline of Cape York, a nankeen night-heron feather found near the Nullagine River in the WA Pilbara and a white-faced heron feather at Lake Williams in the NSW Alps.

“The importance of the Murray-Darling system to Australia’s waterbirds cannot be underestimated.  We mapped feathers coming from wetlands in that region in 11 of 13 of Australia’s other basins,” said Dr Brandis.

She is hoping that the feather map will encourage better protection for and environmental flows to wetlands across the Murray-Darling system.

“This map is a step towards better managing the Murray-Darling Basin’s rivers, swamps and wetlands, and advocate for their conservation – like Ramsar listing and improved water delivery to key sites.  We need to ensure ecological targets for waterbird species, abundance and diversity are met and impact policy to make sure waterbird populations start trending up, not keep tumbling down,” she said.

The techniques used in this project can also be used to study other bird species.

Leonie Blain

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