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Study of neophobia in critically endangered bird species could aid conservation work, say Cambridge reseachers

Understanding neophobia - a fear of new things - in birds could help to save critically endangered species, researchers say.

It follows their study of the Bali myna (Leucopsar rothschildi), of which there are fewer than 50 living in the wild.

Bali myna (Leucopsar rothschildi)
Bali myna (Leucopsar rothschildi)

Led by Dr Rachael Miller, of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), alongside colleagues from the University of Cambridge and the National University of Singapore, the team examined how 22 captive Bali myna birds responded to the presence of new objects and types of food, along with how well they tackled simple problem-solving tasks.

They found that overall birds took longer to touch familiar food when a novel item was present and age as a key factor in behaviour, with adult birds proving to be more neophobic than juveniles.

The birds that quickly touched familiar food placed beside a new object were found to be the quickest to master problem-solving tasks.

Dr Miller said: “Neophobia can be useful in that it can help birds avoid unfamiliar dangers, but it can also impact their adaptation to new environments, such as through an increased reluctance to approach new foods.

“An understanding of behavioural flexibility - specifically how species and individuals within that species respond to novelty and approach new problems - is vital for conservation, particularly as the world is becoming increasingly urbanised. Many species need to adapt to human-generated environmental changes and how an animal responds to novelty can predict post-release outcomes during reintroductions.

Bali myna (Leucopsar rothschildi)
Bali myna (Leucopsar rothschildi)

“We selected the Bali myna for this study specifically because they are on the brink of extinction, with fewer than 50 adults in the wild in Indonesia, but there is a captive breeding programme of almost 1,000 birds in zoos around the world.

“As part of active conservation of the Bali myna, there is a need to continually release birds to try to boost the small, wild population. Now we have data on the behavioural flexibility of these birds, this can help to inform which birds may be best suited for reintroduction. Our study has already identified that releasing juvenile Bali myna may potentially be more successful than releasing adult birds, at least in terms of adaptability to new environments.

“Our data can also help with developing training before release, where captive birds may learn to increase fear responses to traps or people, if they were to be introduced in areas where poaching takes place, or to decrease neophobia by exposure to unfamiliar safe food sources in areas with low resources. We believe the overall project findings will be able to help not just the Bali myna, but hopefully many other endangered species.”

The six-week study was carried out at Waddesdon Manor, run by the National Trust and Rothschild Foundation, Cotswolds Wildlife Park and Gardens and Birdworld.

The open access study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, is part of a larger project led by Dr Miller, a lecturer in animal behaviour, which aims to combine avian cognition and behaviour research with conservation, to help threatened species.

ARU has a PhD opportunity to participate in this project. For details, visit https://bit.ly/3RZDyWS.

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