Tui talk

A research project by Massey’s Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences has discovered that tui have a language with over 400 syllables.

Weighing tui as part of the research.

Tui were chosen as they are relatively common and therefore easy to observe.

The research is one of a broad range of studies into tui behaviour led by Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences wildlife ecologist Weihong Ji.

As urban environments increase in size, the work has broad implications for species management. Weihong is passionate about answering questions around the effect of urbanisation and human contact on animal communication and how differing animal characteristics affect mating behaviour.

“We have a number of research projects running concurrently,” she says. “These focus on urban fragmentation of tui habitat and how that affects tui behaviour, song and physical characteristics. For instance how proximity to a motorway might affect song and calling behaviour, and how the diversity and dialects of song and syllable repertoires of individuals and populations might differ between urban and non-urban habitats.”

Strategies in an expanding urban environment

“The long term goal is to identify strategies for effectively managing tui habitat in an expanding urban environment.” Weihong has been examining tui behaviour since 2008 and has grown quite attached to them as a species. “They are beautiful birds.”

Tui were primarily chosen for these studies as they are relatively common and therefore easy to find and observe. What is clear is that tui song is incredibly diverse. A project to build an urban syllables key has identified over 400 syllables so far. Another piece of research recorded 373 distinctly different songs in 2.4 hours of audio recordings. This included long-range broadcasting calls, short-range interactive songs, alarm and distress calls.

Singing for a mate

Another related study is focused on how plumage variation and size relates to tui predication towards fathering through a second or more female (extra-pair paternity (EPP).

Tui are socially monogamous, but are sexual size dimorphic, males are larger than females, ) and a very high rate of extra-pair Paternity (EPP), female mating with males outside the social pair . Weihong’s research has shown that EPP occurred in 72% of all tui broods and 57% of all offspring were extra-pair. The size of the white plume appear to be related to the EPP success of males.

The plume tend to be larger on the male than the female and the size of the plume has been shown by the group’s research to be an indicator of extra pair breeding success.

China connection

As well as working with tui, Weihong continues work in her native China.

Prior to coming to New Zealand she completed comprehensive studies on the mating systems and social structure of the Chinese snub-nosed monkey, subsequently published in Nature communication. She regularly travels back to continue work in China, taking two postgraduate students to study vocalisation and nutrition ecology of this monkey and how eco-tourism affects their diet and behaviour.

She has also formed a research centre with Gansu Agricultural University in Lanzhou looking at biodiversity in alpine grassland, currently engaging in research into the zukor, a type of subterranean rodent.

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