Marie-Hélène Burle

PhD Candidate

Senior Supervisor: Ronald C. Ydenberg & David B. (Dov) Lank

  • Email:
  • Tel: 778-782-5618
  • Office: TASC2, 8540

Thesis Title

Biology and conservation of the Tuamotu Sandpiper

Research Interests

My PhD focuses on the ecology, behaviour and conservation of the Tuamotu Sandpiper Prosobonia parvirostris, a shorebird endemic to French Polynesia (South Pacific).
Tuamotu Sandpipers are sedentary, arboricole and nectarivorous shorebirds (!!) without any close living relatives. Having evolved without predator, they are tame, inquisitive and an amazing study organism. They are also endangered: Pacific Islands have a heavy history of extinctions, in part due to the introduction of mammalian predators. Being the last representative of a tribe otherwise extinct with adaptations unique in its order, this species is the bearer of a relatively high evolutionary heritage.


A study site in the middle of nowhere
(Tahanea Atoll, Tuamotu Archipelago, French Polynesia)

My goal is to gather enough information on the ecology, population structure, social system, breeding biology, demography and behaviour of the Tuamotu Sandpiper to be in a position to advise conservation actions for the species (i.e. translocations to islands where predators have been removed).

Where left undisturbed,
Tuamotu Sandpipers reach amazing densities.
This species was once probably amongst the most
abundant landbirds in the Pacific

Three 6-month field trips on uninhabited atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago taught me a lot on this previously unstudied species. I am starting to understand the basics of their natural history as well as threats they have to face: introduced rats, habitat degradation through coconut grove plantations and ocean swells. Another concern for the long term future of a species endemic to low (<10m) islands lies in sea level rise.
We have established collaborations with the Société d'Ornithologie de Polynésie "Manu" (BirdLife in French Polynesia), the French Polynesian government (DIREN), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and university or natural history museum researchers from several countries to conduct this work.

Tame and inquisitive,
Tuamotu Sandpipers are great study organisms

In parallel with this research, we have initiated a small scale rat removal conducted by Island Conservation. Participation in this experimental project in the field allowed me to gain insight into the logistical challenges future conservation planning will have to face as well as some of their solutions. I am currently writing a translocation feasibility assessment for Tuamotu Sandpipers funded by a Critical Endangered Partnership Fund and I am confident that conservation actions for the species will happen.

'Paradise tropical islands' and their fauna
are vulnerable to introduced predators,
coconut tree plantations, swells, sea level rise...