Mao (Gymnomyza samoensis)

Also known as: black-breasted honeyeater, ma’o, ma’oma’o, mao honeyeater
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyMeliphagidae
GenusGymnomyza (1)
SizeLength: 31 cm (2)

The mao is classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The mao (Gymnomyza samoensis) is a dusky olive-green bird with a distinctive streak of emerald under its eye and an elegant decurved bill. A well camouflaged species, this bird appears almost black from a distance, with its sooty-brown breast, olive shades and a light brown tail aiding its invisibility in the canopy (2) (3).

When moving about the mao continuously waves its tail up and down in a slow and regular motion (4). The female mao is said to be significantly larger than the male, and the juvenile is a slightly lighter shade of dull-brown on both the stomach and head (3) (5).

The piercing call of the mao has been described as a series of low, nasal and hoarse sounds, which rise into high yelps before falling back (4). These eerie calls have given native Samoans a superstitious attitude towards the mao, believing that hearing its calls would mean misfortune or death was about to occur (3) (4).

This bird occurs on Savai`i and `Upolu, the two main islands of Samoa, in the South Pacific Ocean. The mao also once lived on nearby American Samoa, where it is now extinct (2) (5).

The mao resides in native Samoan forest on steep slopes, along rivers and at forest edges, mainly in high altitude areas (3).

This species was once common in lowlands, but has gradually moved to steep valleys and foothills, with the largest numbers in high craters which are rarely disturbed, although it is occasionally also seen in areas of cinder cone and in heathland scrub (3) (5).

The green-flecked mao, like other honeyeaters (species in the family Meliphagidae), feeds on insects, nectar and small fruits, its favourite foraging place being the heavily blossomed coral tree (Erythrina spp.), where it will perform its distinctive song flight. It also uses its bill to probe into soft rotten wood and dig out insect larvae (3) (5).

Though sightings of this species are rare in the wild, the mao has been observed hopping between branches, and foraging in moss in the interior of a tree. It has also been seen clinging upside-down (4).

The mao plays an important ecological role in the forests of Samoa as a key pollinator for many native plants. It is thought that without this species, and other honeyeaters in the area, many of these plants would become locally extinct (3).

Not much is known about the breeding behaviour of the mao, but for closely related species the breeding season runs from June to October. During courtship, a pair of maos will stay close to each other, and wing fluttering behaviour has been observed. It is thought that when nesting the mao tends to lay two to three eggs in a high fork of a tree (3).

The mao is vulnerable to both man-made and natural threats, with habitat destruction being the main threat to this species (3). Originally, logging was responsible for large-scale habitat destruction, but still left some inaccessible forest. Now, however, slash-and-burn cultivation threatens these remote, inaccessible upland habitats as new access routes are created (2) (3).

Cyclones have also been a real threat to the forests of Samoa, removing much of the canopy cover; for example, in 1990 and 1991 cyclones Ofa and Val reduced cover to 27 percent of that present the previous year (6). Fires can also destroy the forest habitat of the mao, particularly during times of drought (3).

Another threat to the mao is invasive tree species like pine (Pinus spp.) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.). These not only decrease the quality of the forest, but take advantage of cyclone destruction to spread more rapidly. There is also a small threat of hunting to this bird, despite the practice being illegal for over ten years (5) (3). The mao is also at risk from introduced predators, such as the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans), which is believed to have contributed to its extinction on American Samoa (3).

In 2007 it was thought that only 500 maos remained in the wild, and this number is unfortunately still continuing to decrease (2).

The mao is present in rainforest preserves at Tafua Peninsula, Falealupo, Aopo Cloud Forest, and O Le Pupu Pu`e National Park. However, there is still a problem with logging and cattle farming within some of these areas (2) (3).

There have been projects within the South Pacific Biodiversity Conservation Programme and the Biodiversity Support Programme that have worked with local villages to increase awareness of the mao, although these have not been completely successful as yet (3).

As of 2006 Samoa has created a targeted recovery plan for the mao, with the aim of conserving existing habitats, gathering local support for conservation, and finding out more about the mao, since there is very limited knowledge of its ecology. Two key parts of the plan aim to establish the bird on some of the smaller, rat-free islands of Samoa, and to establish a captive management programme (3).

More information on the mao and its conservation:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. BirdLife International (November, 2011)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=5353&m=0
  3. Ministry of Natural Resources & Environment (MNRE) (2006) Recovery Plan for the Ma’oma’o or Mao (Gymnomyza samoensis). Ministry of Natural Resources & Environment, Government of Samoa, Apia, Samoa.
  4. Orenstein, R.I. (1979) Notes on the ma'o (Gymnomyza samoensis), a rare Samoan honeyeater. Notornis, 26(2): 181-184.
  5. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D.A. (2008) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 13: Penduline-Tits to Shrikes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  6. Elmqvist, T., Rainey, W.E., Pierson, E.D. and Cox, P.A. (1994) Effects of tropical cyclones Ofa and Val on the structure of a Samoan lowland rain forest. Biotropica, 26(4): 384-391.