AUGUST 28, 2019
Weka are often portrayed as little more than sandwich-stealing scallywags. The large, brown flightless bird's tendency to be curious and gobble any food available (whether it be an unwatched biscuit, penguin egg or endangered gecko) also makes them troublesome for conservationists. However, a new study by University of Canterbury and Department of Conservation researchers has found that these charismatic birds also perform important services for Aotearoa New Zealand forests.
Although birds like the kererū (wood pigeon) tend to get credit for dispersing seeds, it turns out weka are important seed dispersers for some New Zealand plants. They eat the fruits of many plant species, and have a large beak that allows them to also eat fruits that smaller birds can't manage. A new study, published today in Royal Society Open Science, found that weka even disperse some seeds as far as kererū do.
"You might think that because weka are flightless they wouldn't be very good at moving seeds large distances," says lead author Jo Carpenter, a University of Canterbury (UC) Ecology Ph.D. student now based at Manaaki Whenua | Landcare Research. "But it turned out they were dispersing a small proportion of seeds over two kilometres—that's a long way for a seed."
The researchers investigated how far weka moved seeds by attaching GPS transmitters to over 40 birds, then figuring out how long it took seeds to pass through weka. By understanding how long it takes a seed to typically pass through a weka, they could model how far seeds eaten by weka would be travelling. Because some seeds stay inside the birds as long as six weeks, the weka can deposit them far from where they were eaten.