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Research visit: Seabirds and plastics

Aotearoa is well known as the land of the birds, but we should also claim the status of being the world’s seabird capital. Albatrosses, mollymawks, penguins, petrels, prions, shearwaters, shags, gulls, and gannets, we see them all. Did you know that within the territorial waters of Aotearoa, we boast the highest numbers of birds that are found nowhere else. 
Coastally located, Dunedin is in the thick of this seabird diversity and the only mainland place where albatrosses nest (this is out at Taiaroa Head). Many of these species are represented in Otago Museum’s collections, making them a useful resource for researchers like Kamya Patel. A Master’s student visiting from the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences, Patel is investigating the ingestion of plastics by seabirds. The Museum hosted her recently so she could study some of our birds. 

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Kamya Patel,University of Auckland School of Biological Sciences, taking morphometric measurements of an albatross before her dissection looking for plastics. Photo: On Lee Lau © Otago Museum. 

Patel wants to better understand why seabirds are ingesting plastics and is using a sensory ecology approach to investigate this risk to shags, gannets, and albatrosses. Sensory ecology is the study of how different animals perceive the world and then how that influences their behaviour. Patel tells me Dunedin is a must-visit location for her work becauseThe South Island is home to shag and albatross species that are much rarer in the North Island or altogether absent. Visiting Dunedin allowed me to include species of shags and albatrosses that I would not have been able to include otherwise, ensuring that a wider range of species are represented in my study.” As well as giving Kamya’s research a national scope, the Dunedin birds help to gather evidence on how marine plastics, a global issue, are affecting the birds of our home waters. 
Seabirds that have died accidentally or are beach cast after storms are often collected by the Department of Conservation (DOC), or members of the public, and deposited at Otago Museum to be made available for future research. Many of these salvaged seabirds have been stored in our freezers for a couple of decades, which allowed a nice timeline of plastic ingestion to be included in Patel’s dataset. This gives us an insight into potential changes overtime and whether the problem has been getting worse. 

During our time working with Kamya, we asked her why she loves science, and she said the following: “Science can help us answer questions to which we do not know the answers. I love that science is a way we can figure out why things happen and solve unknowns. I love biology, specifically because it allows me to work hands-on with animals and the outdoors. I am fascinated by the behaviour of animals and how they interact with each other and the environment. I like to tie biology with conservation science to find out how we can preserve our flora and fauna while learning more about them.” 

This work was an opportunity for us to assess these birds for their suitability to be prepared for the collection. Some of the birds that Patel has looked at for her research will be skeletonised and added to the Otago Museum skeletal collection which can be used for comparative anatomy and further study in the future. It is collaborations like this one with fledgling researchers that make working in a natural history collection so fun. 

We wish Kamya well with the rest of her Masters project and will follow up with an update once she has finished her research.