ANSTO scientists joined forces with UNSW researchers to unlock feather mystery

Birds of a feather: Dr Kate Brandis, right, led the Feather Map of Australia Project. Picture: Supplied
Birds of a feather: Dr Kate Brandis, right, led the Feather Map of Australia Project. Picture: Supplied

ANSTO scientists have used nuclear techniques to help produce a "feather map" that will enable water and wetland managers to better understand Australia's waterbirds and ensure their long-term survival.

ANSTO joined forces with University of NSW (UNSW) researchers for the Feather Map of Australia Project, which ran for several years.

It was partly made possible thanks to members of the public who answered the call to collect moulted waterbird feathers and send them to researchers.

A total of 835 submissions were received from students, environmental groups and individuals across Australia. One submission contained more than 50 samples.

Feathers from 553 wetlands were then analysed using nuclear techniques to gain an in-depth understanding of the waterbirds in Australia's basins and the broader ecosystems where they live.

ANSTO and UNSW researchers were able to reveal information about the movement patterns, diet and habitats of each bird from the feathers.

Among the study's findings was that the Murray Darling Basin was of key importance to Australia's waterbirds as it was the key basin from which birds dispersed to other parts of Australia. In fact, 60 per cent of the feathers were identified as having come from the Murray Darling, while feathers from there were found in 11 of the 13 basins analysed.

This reliance of Australia's waterbirds on the Murray Darling reinforced the importance of properly managing the water resource in the future.

Joint UNSW and ANSTO lead father map researcher Dr Kate Brandis thanked the more than 200 people across Australia who collected the feathers.

She said 24 waterbird species had been mapped, with "vital information unlocked for researchers to better understand the role of Australia's wetlands".

"Each feather is like a memory chip of where that bird has been, so comparing feathers from diverse parts of Australia identifies differences and creates a map to understand more about the ecosystems," she said.

"Understanding how these birds use wetlands and where they travel is crucial to the conservation of the environments where they nest, feed and roost."

Dr Brandis said the ANSTO analysis revealed elements such as silicon, phosphorus, sulphur, chlorine, calcium, iron, zinc, arsenic and tin, which "help to tell a story about the bird's environment when it grew the feather".

A sample of each studied feather was also screened for isotopes of oxygen and carbon to compare feathers from diverse pockets of Australia and link them to specific areas, she said.

"Birds were found to travel long distances across the country and many species are very mobile, moving between basins, most likely in search of good habitat because of its variability. This highlights the importance of the country-wide water ecosystem to birdlife," she said.

Dr Brandis said the feathers would be catalogued as they were an "invaluable resource for future studies".