George Perry: So, how far might extinct birds have moved seeds?

In this instalment of “Behind the Paper”, Professor George Perry (he/him/his) of the University of Auckland shares with us the background of the paper “Reconstructing ecological functions provided by extinct fauna using allometrically informed simulation models: an in silico framework for ‘movement paleoecology”.

About the paper

An illustration by Keulmans of a pair of Huia, a New Zealand endemic speces that went extinct in the early twentieth century. The species was exceptionally sexually dimorphic, with the female having a long curved beak and the male’s beak being shorter and not curved. This plate was published in Buller’s (1888) A History of the Birds of New Zealand, Volume 1 (2nd ed.). Image retrieved from Wimikedia Common [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Huia_Buller.jpg] and in the public domain.
An illustration by Keulmans of a pair of Huia, a New Zealand endemic speces that went extinct in the early twentieth century. The species was exceptionally sexually dimorphic, with the female having a long curved beak and the male’s beak being shorter and not curved. This plate was published in Buller’s (1888) A History of the Birds of New Zealand, Volume 1 (2nd ed.). Image retrieved from Wimikedia Common [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Huia_Buller.jpg] and in the public domain.

Imagine if you could attach a high-resolution biotelemetric tracker on a dinosaur or a moa or a giant ground sloth!  Using such data, you could reconstruct the functions, such as seed dispersal, that such animals once provided. Sadly we don’t have this information. Instead, we (my colleagues Janet Wilmshurst and Jamie Wood, and I) drew on advances in movement ecology and allometric ecology to predict seed dispersal kernels for extinct vertebrates, using three extinct birds from Aotearoa-New Zealand as examples.  We also hoped to develop a more general framework for reconstructing spatially emergent functions (e.g. seed dispersal, pollination, biogeochemical fluxes) for animals that are extinct or where data are very scarce.  This study extends previous research on seed dispersal by extinct megafauna in South America (Pires et al. 2018) and dinosaurs (Perry 2021).  The paper’s key message is that careful use of natural history, palaeoecological information, and allometry can help us understand the ecosystem functions that extinct animals provided and hence what their extinction means functionally.

About the research

It is tempting to see the current biodiversity crisis in terms of composition without also considering function.  However, population collapse and extinction of animals have worrying implications for many ecological functions.  These functions are hard to predict for many animals, and our framework provides a step in that direction.  Given that strategies such as rewilding and de-extinction emphasize the return of ecological function, it is essential to quantify what functions might once have been provided by extinct animals (and are now depleted or absent). In our research, we tried to integrate a range of data sources and types – palaeoecology, allometric theory, and movement ecology, supported by our understanding of the natural history – via spatial modelling.  Blending such diverse data is challenging but is a prerequisite for addressing the issues of interest, and it also provides novel ways to look at ‘old’ questions.  There are many open questions for our research to extend to; for example, can we estimate the total dispersal kernel for entire guilds of now-extinct animals (e.g. moa in NZ)? How did concurrent changes in landscape structure influence spatially emergent functions?

About us

George Perry conducting research.
George Perry conducting research.

I’ve always been interested in the natural world, and alongside ecology, I think the undergraduate courses I took in physical geography gave me an appreciation for the landscape and the past.  Most of the research my students and I are conducting uses simulation modelling and field-work to understand the consequences of human transformation of the environment; this includes disturbance (fire) ecology, seed dispersal and land-sea nutrient fluxes. We’re also interested in how change in the past constrains and informs conservation and restoration opportunities in the present.  However, the research in this paper is very much a collaborative effort that drew on the different but complementary interests and expertise of all authors; I certainly couldn’t have developed the research alone!

Read the research behind the blog here.

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