Manu Puhi

Manu Puhi

Manu Puhi

El Pájaro Silbador de · the whistling bird of · Rapa Nui

By Tannia Ramírez Medina – U. de Chile – ESMOI

Getting to Rapa Nui today involves 5 hours of flying at almost 1000 kilometers (600 miles) per hour. Have you ever wondered, how then did the little creatures which inhabit Rapa Nui get there? How could the Manu Puhi, that little gray bird which sings for its people? Have you realized that you share this space with them every day? This little bird is the diuca finch, known on the Island as the whistling bird.

As a result of its extreme isolation, the animal life of Rapa Nui has little diversity, unlike most of the other Polynesian islands. By natural processes of migration, some species of marine birds, marine mammals and the small insects, like the dragonfly of the species Pantala flavescens (locally called Pepeka) arrived.

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In the past it was possible to find a larger variety of flora and fauna, which for different reasons have become extinct. This extinction mainly affected terrestrial birds, like parrots, owls, red robins and quail which are unable to fly for great distances. Today there are no native terrestrial birds on Rapa Nui. Even the Manutara (sooty tern), an emblematic species of Rapa Nui for its association with the cult of Tangata-Manu (Bird Man) at Orongo, no longer nests on the Island. The birds which we find today have been introduced. Among them are the swallow, the partridge, the falcon and the diuca finch. All were brought from continental Chile between the years of 1888 and 1928 by settlers, for consumption and as decorative birds.

According to scientific notes from 1928, the presence of the first diuca finch was registered on Rapa Nui, introduced as a decorative bird probably by missionaries from Valparaiso. Today it is found all over the Island and is the most abundant introduced species. How can you recognize it? It is a small gray bird with a white neck and breast. It eats seeds and during the morning it is the first to sing, which is why it is called the whistling bird, Manu Puhi in the Rapanui language. Sometimes you can find individuals with albinism, which is birds is called leucism; this means that it has partially or totally white plumage in the area of the head and neck, due to the absence of melanin, the pigment which gives color and protection to organs, skin, hair, feathers and the iris of the eye.

As part of a program for Master of Biological Sciences of the University of Chile, in an alliance with the Millennium Nucleus for Ecology and Sustainable Management of Oceanic Islands – ESMOI, we have concentrated our study in the Manu Puhi, considering all the aspects mentioned and noting that there are some differences, both in coloring and in size, from the diuca finch on the continent. The objective of this study is to determine the differences in morphology and genetics in the population of diuca finch which has established on the Island, considering that these birds are isolated, geographically and reproductively, from their point of origin on the continent. This isolation could lead to genetic differentiation between the two groups. To carry out the study, we’ve had to do field research on the Island. Registries have been made of morphological characteristics, such as length of wing and of tail and form of face, among several aspects. Blood samples were drawn for later genetic analysis in the laboratories of Ecology and Genetics of the University of Chile.
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For now, the preliminary results show differences between the populations in some morphological aspects. The diuca finches of Rapa Nui have longer wings and the beak is smaller than the diuca finch of the continent. Genetic results, based on analysis of ADN, also show distinct patterns. Although we can’t be sure that the diuca finch present on Rapa Nui is totally different from that in continental Chile continental, we are sure that the individuals on Rapa Nui are passing through a process of isolation. These studies are very important to protect the flora and fauna of Rapa Nui, which is, in many cases, distinct from that which we find in continental Chile.
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