Nature's Greatest Copycat Shifts More Soil In A Year Than Any Other Animal

When it comes to ecosystem maintenance, the lyrebird is certainly earning its keep. Alex Maisey

You might already be familiar with the lyrebird, famous for its mimicry allowing it to copy anything and anyone, from other bird species to the sound of a camera’s shutter. A new study published in the journal Ecological Applications however has discovered that this incredible bird has a second talent, as the world’s most active soil shifter. In the process of foraging, a lyrebird moves around 155 tons of dirt and soil in a year, the most of any animal on Earth. The amazing feat contributes a huge amount to forest ecology, assisting with nutrient cycling, maintenance of soil‐dwelling invertebrate communities, and even post‐fire ecosystem recovery.

Found in the forests of Eastern Australia, the lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae is an engineer when it comes to its environment, making alterations to their surroundings that impact the habitats of a host of organisms. A team of researchers from La Trobe University, Australia took a look at lyrebird populations in the Central Highlands of Victoria to see how these animals were changing the landscape over two years. Their findings revealed that on average the lyrebirds displaced 155 tons of soil and leaf litter per hectare in a single year while foraging for food, the equivalent of 11 dump trucks.

The researchers propose the lyrebird constitutes an ecosystem engineer in the forests of south‐eastern Australia due to the sheer volume of soil and litter it turns over when foraging. “The enormous extent of litter and soil turned over by the superb lyrebird is unparalleled by any other vertebrate soil engineer in terrestrial ecosystems globally,” write the authors in the study. “The profound influence of such foraging activity on forest ecosystems is magnified by its year‐round pattern and widespread distribution.”

Their influence is such that it has implications for entire communities of organisms, from the invertebrates which live within the soil the birds kick about to the wider forest ecosystem as their behavior alters how forests react to and recover from fires. They assist with decomposition, which is a vital step in nutrient cycling, and even shape the composition of ground-layer plant species, changing the face of the landscape.

The researchers write that the tireless efforts of the lyrebirds are of vital importance to forest ecosystems, and as such maintaining lyrebird populations is critical. The discovery is also of particular importance topically speaking, as the forests of Australia face an uncertain future following unprecedented wildfires in eastern Australia in summer 2019/2020 which severely burned around 12 million hectares of forest, including roughly 30 percent of the geographic range of the superb lyrebird.

“In the face of climate change and the growing risk of severe bushfires, understanding the role that species such as the superb lyrebird play in ecosystems is more important than ever,” said lead researcher Alex Maisey in a statement. “As champions of biodiversity, conservation of this species should be a key priority in the management of wet forests in south-eastern Australia.

“Without lyrebirds, Australia’s forests would be vastly different places, with impacts extending well beyond the absence of their glorious song or their mimicked sounds of camera clicks.”


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