Night Parrot

If I ask you to picture a parrot, what image do you conjure up? Likely it would be some version of colourful, noisy birds feeding in a tree or soaring through the sunshine. But did you know that Australia has an elusive night parrot? Not only is this creature nocturnal (active at night), but it prefers to hop around on the ground more than hanging about in trees.

The Night Parrot (scientific name Pezoporus occidentalis), is so rare that it was thought to have gone extinct for almost 100 years with no confirmed sightings between 1912 and 1979. It wasn’t until 2013 that photographs and videos of live birds were captured! The Night Parrot is still incredibly elusive, but we seem to have been given a second chance to conserve this mysterious species and conservation efforts are continuing.

Nocturnal Ground-Parakeet … illustrated by Elizabeth Gould (1804–1841) for John Gould’s (1804-1881) Birds of Australia (1972 Edition, 8 volumes). Image from Wikipedia.

However, as palaeontologists we require skeletons of “extant” (alive today) species to compare to the fossil bones we find to aid our identification and interpretations. But if a bird is as rare as the Night Parrot, how on earth would you find a skeleton to look at?

Thankfully, museums are a repository of biological specimens that can be used by scientists in instances like this. As stated in a recent paper published in the leading journal Science, “The world’s natural history collections provide a window into the planet’s past and present, and they are increasingly being used to make actionable predictions relative to climate change, biodiversity loss, and infectious disease.”

Working with fossil bird expert, Dr Elen Shute, and Professor of palaeontology at Flinders University, Prof. Gavin Prideaux, we have described the skull anatomy of this elusive bird for the first time thanks to being able to access the holotype specimen from the Natural History Museum of London collection. We used microCT scanning to non-destructively examine the “skin” of a specimen (originally shot and collected in 1861!), and digitally segment out the bones from within.

It’s not a fish, but a very special bird to work on indeed and I’m thankful for the invitation from my coauthors to contribute to this research. Digital models of all the bones are available via the online repository MorphoSource for research, education or just simple curiosity.

READ MORE: Our paper Cranial adaptations of the Night Parrot (Psittaculidae: Pezoporus occidentalis), a cryptic nocturnal bird was published in the journal Emu – Austral Ornithology, earlier this month. Additionally, we wrote an accompanying piece for The Conversation : “Our mysterious night parrot has terrible vision – but we discovered it might be able to hear like an owl”.