ON EARTH IS A MEGAPODE?
A young person interested in ecology should be pleased to see a recent announcement in Species, the newsletter of the Species Survival Commission of IUCN, the World Conservation Union. The Megapode Specialist Group formed in 1986 is "very keen to hear from young researchers who would like to become involved in studying some of the most interesting birds on the planet." Of course, the first question might be "What in the world is a megapode?"
Megapodes include birds called brush-turkeys, scrubfowl, incubator birds, and mound-builders. Birds in this family bury their eggs in the soil, which may be warm volcanic sands, sun-heated beaches, or mounds of earth with decaying leaf litter, all of which generate heat that enhances incubation. Megapodes are noted for the female's minimal effort at parental care once the eggs are laid. The mother more or less walks away, leaving the eggs to hatch on their own, like those of a turtle, snake, or lizard. The male stays in the vicinity of the mound, attempting to regulate the temperature by adjusting the amount of litter covering the eggs. When the young hatch, they are fully mobile and are not fed by the parents. Letting offspring fend for themselves is common for reptiles around the globe, but such parental indifference is unusual among birds.
The megapode family consists of 22 species of generally brown, gray, or black birds that resemble turkeys. Megapodes live in Indonesia, Australia, and islands in the Indian Ocean and Polynesia, most being found in moist tropical forests. Like turtles and alligators, the sex ratio of the clutch of at least one species, the Australian brush-turkey, is determined by the temperature of the nest during incubation, a rare phenomenon among birds.
In the mallee fowl of Australia, which can weigh more than 30 pounds and is one of the best known megapodes, the male constructs the nest. He digs a hole in soft soil that can be three feet deep and more than 10 feet wide. He then fills the hole and makes a large mound of twigs and other debris. During the reproductive period of up to a month, the female typically lays one egg a day on the mound, and the male buries it. The male stays with the nest for weeks, adjusting the incubation temperature.
Having almost two dozen different species does not mean that megapodes are immune to the many threats faced by modern wildlife. Eight species are considered to be "at risk" according to the IUCN, the best internationally known and most respected conservation organization. In practical terms, "at risk" can be interpreted as "endangered." The threats to megapodes include predation by natural predators, but megapodes have evolved to deal with such natural setbacks. Unfortunately, habitat destruction, a problem faced by wildlife worldwide, and harvesting of the eggs by people exacerbate the situation. More than one-third of this fascinating family of birds will soon be extinct unless conditions change.
Various specialist groups of the IUCN Species Survival Commission provide the leadership for conservation efforts for specific plant and animal groups, one of which is the megapodes. According to the IUCN, the biologically informed and talented people who volunteer for these specialist groups "contribute to technical and scientific counsel to biodiversity conservation projects throughout the world." Their influence and impact is truly global as they "provide advice to governments, international conventions, and conservation organizations."
For someone who wants to be truly engaged in global-scale conservation efforts, IUCN is the organization to be involved with. The IUCN mission is "to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable." And they are looking for new participants. If you are interested in unusual wildlife and endangered species, and do not have family obligations, this might be your opportunity to work with a bird that seems to have forsaken standard parental care.
out more about the IUCN Species Survival Commission and how you might
help with megapodes or another specialist group, go to www.iucn.org.