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Forget worms and gophers, lyrebirds are the world’s best soil shifter

In scientific terms this makes them an “ecosystem engineer” par excellence, says primary author and ecology PhD candidate Alex Maisey, whose study is published in Ecological Applications.

“We believe wildfire is the only comparable natural disturbance process that shapes ecosystem structure at this scale.”

Superb lyrebirds spend most of the day tilling the soil, facing uphill and scratching the litter behind them with their powerful feet so they are aided by gravity, Mr Maisey said.

A superb lyrebird in Victorian forest. New research has found lyrebirds they are the most prolific earthmoving animals in the world.

A superb lyrebird in Victorian forest. New research has found lyrebirds they are the most prolific earthmoving animals in the world. Credit:Alex Maisey.

“When you hold their feet you don’t really know who’s holding who – they grip your hands so tightly,” he said. “They are incredibly strong and their claws must grow at an amazing rate.

Mr Maisey tracked the activity of wild superb lyrebirds over two years in the Central Highlands of Victoria across three locations and found, like beavers in North America, the songbird changes the environment in ways that can benefit other organisms.

As they search for insects on the forest floor the lyrebirds change litter decomposition and “fluff up”, or aerate, the structure of soil on the forest floor, making it easier for seeds to germinate.

Superb lyrebirds on the forest floor

Superb lyrebirds on the forest floorCredit:Alex Maisey

When researchers fenced off areas of the forest they found the leaf litter drastically increased in the areas where the superb lyrebirds were unable to forage, with implications for bushfire risk and increased fuel load.

Research published five years ago found superb lyrebirds reduced the risk of bushfire by spreading dry leaf litter and digging safe havens that help other species survive fires.

Many vertebrates are prolific in moving soil: Arctic ground squirrels displace up to 18 tonnes per hectare per year in the Arctic, while the northern pocket gopher can displace up to 14.5 tonnes per hectare per year in the prairie habitats of North America.

BirdLife Australia estimates that about 40 per cent of the superb lyrebird’s habitat was destroyed in the 2019-20 megafires, throwing the conservation status of the species into question.

When you hold their feet you don’t really know who’s holding who – they grip your hands so tightly.

Alex Maisey

In the face of climate change, and the growing risk of severe bushfires, understanding the role that lyrebirds play in ecosystems is more important than ever, Mr Maisey said.

“Conservation of this species should be a key priority in the management of wet forests in south-eastern Australia.”

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