Inside New Zealand’s High-Tech Plan to Save the Heaviest Parrot in the World

The native kākāpō were nearly driven to extinction through inbreeding and infertility, but genetic sequencing and drones are bringing them back from the brink

InIn Maori, the name kākāpō means “night parrot.” With females weighing up to three pounds and males nearly five pounds, these strange, nocturnal birds are the heaviest parrot species in the entire world. Once a common sight throughout New Zealand, they have experienced a massive decline since the late 20th century. Because of predators and rising infertility, there were just 51 kākāpō left alive in the 1990s.

But now, thanks to a nationwide effort involving private islands, genetic sequencing, artificial incubation, drones, and miniature tracking devices, their numbers have quadrupled to 211. Using genetic markers to enhance breeding techniques, as well as transmitters and drones to carefully nurture them into adulthood, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has revitalized the kākāpō population — a tech-enabled comeback for a deeply endangered species at a moment when global wildlife is threatened like never before.

The kākāpō, a large, flightless parrot species native to New Zealand, is the world’s only lek-breeding parrot, which means the males put up displays for females during mating season and do not help in raising the offspring. Their faces are almost owl-like, and although they cannot fly, kākāpō are very capable climbers.

They’re also known to be the longest-lived bird species in the world. “We don’t even really know how old they can get,” says Lydia Uddstrom, a veterinarian who is responsible for working with her colleagues at the Auckland Zoo to look after sick or injured kākāpō. “We think at least 90 years. They also have incredibly beautiful feathers, which blend perfectly with the foliage, the trees, and the bush where they live. Their camouflage makes them almost invisible.”

The kākāpō are assigned “relatedness scores” based on the genetic markers, and those with the rarest genes and fewer offspring are encouraged to mate.

When the kākāpō were abundant throughout New Zealand, the Maori, who arrived as settlers from Eastern Polynesia in the early 14th century and became the first humans on the islands, hunted the kākāpō for their meat and used their feathers to make colorful cloaks called kākahu.

“When humans arrived in New Zealand, not only did they find the kākāpō a ready food source, but also brought with them mammalian species (like rats, cats, stoats, and possums), who found the kākāpō very easy prey,” Uddstrom says. European settlers entered the picture in the 19th century and brought with them more predatory animals. “This, in combination with the clearing of forests for farming and house-building, led to a rapid depletion of their habitat and a crash in the kākāpō population,” she says.

Recovery was made even more challenging by a puzzling rise in infertility among the birds. Since 1985, 40% of all the eggs laid by kākāpō have been infertile, and 20% of the embryos have died early in development. Andrew Digby, a scientist working with the New Zealand government on kākāpō conservation, thinks this trend is due to inbreeding, which is caused by a lack of genetic diversity in the population and an abnormal sperm count in individual kākāpō.

“The kākāpō went down to really low numbers in the 1990s, and a lot of those individuals were quite closely related to each other,” Digby says. “We also get quite a few sperm deformities in the males that we think are one of the results of the inbreeding.”

That’s why genome sequencing has been so important to the recovery of the kākāpō. The Kākāpō125+ Gene Sequencing Project uses recurring sequences of DNA, called genetic markers, to track down kākāpō that are closely related in an effort to prevent further inbreeding.

The kākāpō are assigned “relatedness scores” based on the genetic markers, and those with the rarest genes and fewer offspring are encouraged to mate. The scientists also use artificial insemination to match the most genetically high-performing males to females.

In addition, the Department of Conservation uses several techniques to encourage the kākāpō to naturally breed more often. These include careful feeding strategies that require giving the parrots access to just the right amount of food to produce the most viable females and hormone therapy to induce breeding. Digby’s team is also working on designing a nutritional supplement involving rimu fruit, a local crop that stimulates mating among the birds.

But restoring the population of a threatened animal is about more than just breeding. The kākāpō are a critically endangered species and require extensive care throughout their lifespan in order to survive. They are currently housed across three designated islands—Codfish Island/Whenua Hou, Anchor Island, and Little Barrier Island/Hauturu—that have been cleared of all predators to make a suitable home for them. In these protected areas, the kākāpō are allowed to live freely in their natural habitat under the watchful eye of conservation biologists and wildlife experts, who track the animals using nest kits, drones, and other devices.

“Every single kākāpō wears a transmitter on its back,” Digby says. “We use these transmitters not only to track and find the kākāpō but also to monitor their activities. They tell us when the kākāpō have mated and who they’ve mated with, their nesting activities, and so on. We now have data networks with data login stations set up throughout the island. When a kākāpō nears a login station, it automatically transmits all available data from the transmitter to the cloud.”

But even breeding the kākāpō and protecting them into adulthood isn’t enough, as conservationists learned when the species was hit by a deadly epidemic. “Aspergillosis is a fungus that is everywhere in the environment,” Uddstrom says. “It had been the cause of death of a single kākāpō in 2012, so it was known that they could develop aspergillosis under certain circumstances.” When two more birds died of the fungal disease in April 2019, the Department of Conservation, in conjunction with the Auckland Zoo, completely reevaluated the health of all surviving birds. By June, another seven birds had succumbed to the infection.

The deaths prompted a high-budget medical intervention that involved comprehensive health checkups and blood tests for every bird on the islands. Kākāpō identified as at-risk were then taken to the main island for further evaluation using a CT scanner.

It is estimated that at least 680 species of vertebrate creatures have been driven to extinction since the 16th century thanks to human activity, and 1 million more could follow.

“The CT scans are essentially a 3D X-ray which allows for the examination of the respiratory tract in great detail,” Uddstrom explains. “This allowed for the identification of infected birds and rapid treatment,” including anti-inflammatories and anti-fungal medicine. Wildlife veterinarians repeatedly scanned the kākāpō until they were sure the treatments had taken hold.

Of the 50 birds taken from the islands for medical evaluation and treatment, 21 were found infected with aspergillosis, and nine died. The rest seemed to show improvement. The Auckland Zoo’s veterinary hospital, the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine, currently has four kākāpō in its care, while the others have recovered. The current population of the birds stands at 211.

It is estimated that at least 680 species of vertebrate creatures have been driven to extinction since the 16th century thanks to human activity, and 1 million more could follow. Many of these organisms have played a vital role in the planet’s ecosystem for thousands of years. The kākāpō, vulnerable as the species may be, is a crucial element of the island’s biome, and though human activity played a big role in its decline, it appears that technology may help undo some of the damage that’s been done. One can only hope that it will be successful.

Freelance journalist, science and technology.

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