Slowly Does It: Kakapo Recovery

Rare, infertile and vulnerable. Not something anyone wants to be described as and definitely not a good mix. But these three words describe one of our species down to a T and it is proving something of a problem for the world’s rarest parrot. Often mistaken for some kind of strange green owl and even known in some places as the Owl parrot, the Kakapo is something of an oddity in our world. Native to New Zealand and with only 123 individuals left in the world, these fabulous birds are so rare that each one who exists has been given his or her own name. Sinbad and Yasmine happen to be two of the best names on the list in my opinion (there are a lot of fabulous ones!) Kakapo’s are on of the most closely studied species on our planet, with each kakapo being microchipped for tracking purposes and their private lives being something of the utmost importance. That’s right, when it comes to the Kakapo, there is nowhere that we conservationists are not willing to go, with sperm tests and artificial insemination being just some examples of what that these birds are subjected to. What? How invasive! Why don’t we mind our own business! Well, even if the Kakapo were to agree with you there, believe it or not, these tests are not done for fun, they are done to save a bird that faces many challenges.

In the past, habitat destruction and invasive species have all seriously damaged the population of this species (courtesy of humans of course), with the kakapo once being a very common bird. However, kakapo’s don’t exactly help themselves either. No indeed, because when it comes to the kakapo lifestyle, these chunky flightless parrots are very particular. For example, mating is a very tricky business with each kakapo being very choosey (fair enough, right?), but because of this, they sometimes only mate every few years and often, these mating attempts prove unsuccessful. And as if that wasn’t enough, they like to eat a particular fruit of a particular tree (the rimu) that blooms at a particular time of year, every 2-4 years for a limited period! Now, although the adults can survive well enough without this fruit, it is an essential part of their chicks diet. No wonder they’re struggling! But fear not, some humans are here to help and this time, help comes in the form of genetics, or genome sequencing to be precise.

Although it sounds complicated, genome sequencing is fairly ‘simple’ and the information needed can be collected from a single blood sample. And this is what is being done right now by the team of the Kakapo Recovery Project. The idea is that by having in depth genetic knowledge of the kakapo population, the project will be able to avoid inbreeding, focus on and investigate genes that may make the kakapo vulnerable or pre-disposed to disease, and stop any decrease in their existing genetic diversity. Currently, there are 3 Islands with kakapo populations, but the majority live on the largest Island of Codfish Island. Situated at the southernmost tip of New Zealand, Codfish Island is ideal for kakapo recovery as it is a predator-free sanctuary with ideal habitat. As I have previously documented, since the kakapo monitoring program began 25 years ago, 2016 has proved to be a record breaking breeding season for the kakapo on all 3 Islands. Why record breaking? Well, the birds produced 100 eggs in total, which, when considering there are only 123 in the world, is quite good going! However, nothing is simple and there were problems to follow, with over half of the eggs produced being sadly, infertile.

However, this problem was perhaps not surprising as the kakapo population does suffer from a high level of inbreeding, which is perhaps inevitable with such a small number of individuals remaining. So, what do our conservationists do about it? Well, when it’s time for the kakapo to breed, the conservationists descend on the Island, ready to help the birds if it is needed. Tracking technologies allow the conservationists to keep an eye on every single movement the birds make, including when the females leave their nests and identifying the very birds involved in mating. Therefore, this allows the team to know if, genetically speaking, females are mating with the right males. Should a female mate with the wrong male, such as a male with a very similar genetic profile to her, they can intervene and artificially inseminate her.

But management of the kakapo mating season doesn’t stop there. When eggs are laid, any clutches that are bigger than one single egg are taken and given to birds who have suffered unsuccessful clutches. Therefore increasing the survival of each chick. If the power of genome sequencing can be harboured, it will make the efforts of conservation even more precise and hopefully, even more successful. But when will the kakapo be ‘safe’? When will we be able to say that they are not playing, rather precariously, around the edge of extinction? Well, it has been claimed that if 3 populations of kakapo can reach around 500 individuals, or hopefully more, the kakapo may no longer be classed as critically endangered.

For now, the kakapo recovery program is on the right track. The birds are breeding and they are rearing chicks. Hopefully, with the knowledge of their genetics, perseverance and a bit of luck, the populations of the kakapo will continue to thrive!

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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