How our top bird expert turned critics into allies

Published 18 August 2021
Professor Christidis feeding kookaburras

Professor Les Christidis is one of the world’s leading experts on Australian birds and the Associate Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at Southern Cross University. Although he labels himself an ‘accidental ornithologist,’ Les couldn’t be more passionate about birds if he tried. On the latest SCU Buzz Podcast episode, he shared that he once flew from Ethiopia to Uganda just to see his favourite bird in the wild, the African Shoebill.

His PhD research established that 4,500 species of the world's songbirds had their origin in Australia and then spread throughout the world, yet it wasn’t a smooth process for Les to initially produce his findings.

“In 1990, it was the first time that we were able to publish the idea that the songbirds originated in Australia, although we actually came up with the idea around 1987,” Les said.

“At the time it was fairly controversial and it just got knocked back by journals. People just said no, it’s not possible, songbirds are a northern hemisphere group.”

Over a decade later, the attention resurfaced as separate research groups started using different techniques to confirm the origin of the songbird.

“Suddenly, there were all these articles saying that Americans discovered that the world's songbirds originated in Australia, so it was great to be able to say, no actually, I published that over a decade ago,” said Les.

Les has since published over 140 research papers and books on the evolution of Australasian birds and mammals. More recently, he published an article in the journal Nature suggesting that  ‘taxonomy anarchy hampers conservation’, which initially created a stir among scientists and ornithologists.

How a scientific spat over how to name species turned into a big plus for nature

“Having a paper with 186 authors all saying you’re wrong could take you back a bit, but we managed to do a rebuttal,” said Les.

“Nicely, a number of those authors have now joined us in our group on coming up with governance of taxonomic systems. Our critics have now become our partners and collaborators.”

We sat down with Les for National Science Week on the SCU Buzz Podcast, discussing his controversial papers, how we can help the threat of Australian birds and mammals, and we quizzed Les to see how well he REALLY knows birds! Tune in to the latest episode HERE.

Media contact: Content team, content@scu.edu.au