8 June 2017
Superb: funds to find why female lyrebirds mimic predators
Male superb lyrebirds are renowned for their celebrated vocal mimicry, but researchers have recently found that female lyrebirds are spectacular mimics, too. New research is investigating why female superb lyrebirds mimic other species, and why some are better at it than others.
‘While male lyrebirds use vocal mimicry to attract a mate, females use it in other ways and mimic different species to those mimicked by males,’ said Ms Victoria Austin, from the Western Sydney University. ‘They tend to mimic more predator calls when foraging, yet while defending nests they use vocalisations of harmless species. This suggests there are different functions for their mimetic vocalisations.’
Ms Austin is one of around 100 students to share in more than $1 million in funds from the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment, announced today by the Ecological Society of Australia. Her research will investigate the functions of female mimicry, and why there is so much variation in ability between females. She will also look at how females learn over time, to see if they improve in accuracy and complexity.
‘Lyrebird numbers have been in decline,’ said Ms Austin. ‘My research will also provide insight into female lyrebird behaviours, how they react to introduced species such as foxes, and hopefully help with their conservation.’
She said the Holsworth grant will allow her to purchase equipment – including taxidermic models of predators such as goshawks, goannas and foxes – to investigate the function of female lyrebirds’ mimicry. ‘They may use predator calls away from their nest to deter predators coming into their territory, or alternatively to pretend their territory is of lower quality so other females don’t come in. And they may mimic non-predatory species around their nest to attract other birds that can then attack or chase away predators.’
She said the results may challenge how we think about the evolution of song and other vocalisations in birds. ‘It has long been held that song in songbirds is a result of females selecting the best males. But as females don’t need to attract males, the evolutionary pathway for females appears to be different to that of males. If we can use this species as a model to see how vocal mimicry evolved, it will have implications for our understanding of other species around the world.’
Dr Bill Holsworth has supported more than 830 students since establishing the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment with his wife Carol in 1989. The fund is now managed through a partnership with the Ecological Society of Australia. More information about the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment is available at http://www.ecolsoc.org.au/endowments
For further information, including high-res photos: Simon Torok, Scientell, 0409 844 302