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Fly like a bird through boom and bust

The ability of Australian desert birds to adapt to cycles of drought, flood, feast and famine is highlighted in a new book launched today by CSIRO Publishing at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Boom and Bust: Bird stories for a dry country sheds light on how desert birds survive climatic, economic and ecological change.

Studies of key bird species, such as Zebra finches, pelicans and woodswallows show how species have been shaped by evolutionary and environmental changes.

The book also captures the patterns of change caused by humans, before and after European settlement, and provides hope for dealing with current global uncertainty.

Co-author and editor, Leo Joseph, Director of the Australian Wildlife Collection at CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, said that the evolutionary footprint in DNA sequences reveals how species evolve through boom and bust cycles.

"Masked and white-browed woodswallows appear to have undergone major population expansions in their history, probably driven by the effects of glaciation on the Australian environment," Dr Joseph said.

"Boom cycles provide a bigger pool of individuals from which to select the next generation and when the bust sets in many of those individuals and their genes are eliminated through natural selection."

Dr Joseph and co-editors from the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Libby Robin and Robert Heinsohn, have compiled the stories from 10 experts in fields such as ecology, history, archaeology and anthropology.

Dr Robin, who is also a National Museum of Australia historian, said the series of case studies helps us to understand global change.

"They illustrate how natural systems play out under human-induced change and how humans have responded," Dr Robin said. "Australia has among the world's most variable climate and greatest rainfall uncertainty. Many birds like the pelican have built up resilience to cycles of boom and bust and live for long periods on very little, waiting for resources to arrive and seizing opportunities to breed."

The case study of pelicans provided by CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems biologist, Julian Reid, reveals how pelicans successfully respond to uncertainty and sporadic inland flooding.

A study by animal ecologist and CSIRO Group Executive, Manufacturing, Materials and Minerals, Steve Morton, explains that the Zebra Finch,or 'little Aussie battler', is thriving in some of Australia's harshest conditions.


Contact: Lucie van den Berg
CSIRO Australia

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