Lyrical lyrebird also an ecosystem engineer

The superb lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae) is known for its impressive mimicry of other birds’ songs and even camera clicks.

Now researchers have added another talent to its bag of tricks, discovering the songbird moves more soil globally than any other land animal.

According to a new study, published in the journal Ecological Applications, it displaces, on average, 155 tonnes of soil and leaf litter per hectare in a single year while foraging for food.

Lyrebird_soil displacement
Soil cleared by the wild superb lyrebird. Credit: Alex Maisey.

Lead researcher Alex Maisley, from Australia’s La Trobe University, tracked wild superb lyrebirds for two years across three locations – Sherbrooke Forest, Yarra Ranges National Park and Britannia Creek catchment – in the Central Highlands of Victoria.

“In just one year, we calculated that each lyrebird in Sherbrooke Forest moved a load equivalent to that carried by 11 standard dump trucks,” he says.

“While seeking invertebrate prey, they use their sharp claws to expose bare earth, and mix and bury litter.”

As they move soil to search for food, the lyrebirds change litter decomposition and the structure of the soil on the forest floor, creating microhabitats for invertebrates as well as encouraging seed germination.

Their soil displacement also has important implications in creating less fire-prone environments and aiding in post-fire ecosystem recovery.

“We believe that wildfire is the only comparable natural disturbance process shaping ecosystem structures at this scale,” Maisley says.

“Without lyrebirds, Australia’s forests would be vastly different places, with impacts extending well beyond the absence of their glorious song or their mimicked sounds of camera clicks.” 

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