New Zealand has been separate from other land masses for approximately 80 million years. This geographic isolation has allowed for millions of years of natural selection, largely in the absence of predatory mammals. The result has been the evolution of some of the worlds most unique and unusual species. The Kakapo is one of these unique and unusual species and it is currently critically endangered with only 125 known living Kakapo left.
The Kakapo, also known as the owl parrot, is the world’s largest parrot. It is flightless, nocturnal and ground-dwelling. Due to Polynesian and European colonisation and the introduction of predatory mammals such as rats, cats, ferrets and stoats, the flightless Kakapo was hunted and predated to near extinction. Once widespread across New Zealand, it is now confined to three predator-free islands, Whenua Hou, Anchor and Hautura-o-Toi. Since the start of the Kakapo Recovery plan in the 1980s, Kakapo numbers have increased from a low of only 51 individuals.
Scientists in New Zealand and California have now embarked on an ambitious project to save the Kakapo from extinction – the KAKAPO 125 PROJECT. Due to advances in genomic technologies and the fact there are only 125 Kakapo left, the team plans to sequence the genomes of all 125 living kakapo. This will be a scientific first – the Kakapo will be the first species for which the complete DNA sequence for every member of the species is known.
As part of the conservation efforts, scientists take blood samples from the Kakapos to check on their health. DNA will now also be extracted from these blood samples to allow DNA testing to be performed. Jason Howard and his team at Duke University have already successfully sequenced the first Kakapo genome. This comprehensive genome can now be used as a reference to sequence the rest of the species.
The scientists of the Kakapo Recovery team hope to use this genetic information to manage the Kakapo matings to maximise genetic diversity in future offspring. These data will also provide details of individual Kakapo’s fertility and susceptibility to disease, as well as those carrying rare genes.
The genetic data obtained from this project should tell the scientists a lot about the health of the Kakapo as a species. Hopefully they will discover that there is enough genetic diversity for the species to survive in the wild. The last thing they want to discover is that the remainder of the Kakapo species does not have enough genetic variation to be viable. This project will tell us if it is possible to save the Kakapo or whether extinction is, in the end, inevitable.
– Vickie Flint PhD
Photo Credit: New Zealand Department of Conservation, via PBS.org