Friday, June 15, 2012

The Kakapo

Evolution is a strange thing.  Change the selective pressures on a species a bit and it will take take any path to survival it can, no matter how absurd.  Familiar body plans begin to diverge and change and every so often, these adaptations add up to what can only be called odd.

Approximately 85 million years ago, the microcontinent of Zealandia -the tectonic plate containing New Zealand- split from the super continent East Gondwana.  As it did so, the resident organisms became isolated from their mainland relatives.  One group of birds, the ancestors to the New Zealand Parrots (superfamily Strigopoidea) became trapped on the islands.  While most of the parrot species retained a recognizable, if unique form, one species adapted itself to its new environment in the most unexpected of ways.

Enter Strigops habroptila, more commonly known as the Kakapo.  The Kakapo is what a parrot would look like, if it were to be described by someone who had only the vaguest idea of what one was.  Instead of flying through the trees seeking food in the light of the sun, the Kakapo prefer to run about the underbrush at night using their wings for little more then as a means to fall a bit slower.

When flight is no longer an issue, neither is size.
Meaning Night Parrot in Maori, the Kakapo is a rotund bird that inhabits both the underbrush and trees.  An avid climber, it has not lost its preference for high places despite the lack of any native land predators that could threaten the bird.  The only native predators are diurnal (active during the day) birds of prey which have helped push the species towards its flightless and nocturnal nature to escape the threat.

While flightless birds tend to be relatively uncommon, the Kakapo is even more so as no other known species of parrot, living or extinct, has lost the ability to fly.  Since weight is of little concern for the Kakapo any longer, it has been able to grow into the heaviest of all parrots, weighing up to 8 lbs (3.5 kg).  Instead of flight, they will use their strong legs to 'jog' about.  While not exceedingly fast, they are able to cover a few kilometers a night if need be, as can be seen both when females leave their nest in search of food and during the mating season.

Generally solitary, the Kakapo only gathers for breeding purposes.  The mating rituals of the Kakapo also set it aside as it is the only flightless bird to have what is known as a lek mating system.  A lek is a gathering of indiviudals in an area for breeding purposes.  When available food is abundant, the males will leave their territories to gather around hilltops and ridges specifically for breeding.   Here they will compete with other males to attract females.  Each male attempts to control their own patch of ground that is typically seperated by around 160 ft (50 m) from any other male.  While direct confrontation does occur between males, females tend to pick mates based on the loudness of the males calls.  During mating seasons, the males will let out a series of loud 'booms' that can be heard for miles.  The males call out on average 1,000 times an hour for 6 to 7 hours each night.  After finding a mate, the female will leave the lek and retains no connection to the male.

Kakapo chicks, courtesy

While the Kakapo was once revered by the Maori and even kept as pets due to their calm and curious nature, the species now faces an uncertain future.  As humans began to arrive on New Zealand, they brought with them new species that began to threaten the Kakapo.  Starting with rats brought to the island by the Maori's Polynesian ancestors and continuing to include domestic cats and stoats, the introduction of mammalian predators along with changes to the environment led to a dramatic drop in the Kakapo population. 

Now critically endangered, only 126 individuals survive in both captivity and the wild.  While there have been multiple attempts at reintroduction of Kakapo to various islands with minimal predators, success has been limited.  This is not helped by the fact that Kakapo typically breed only once every 3 to 4 years.  Since the start of programs to save the Kakapo, its plight has gained a certain amount of attention with multiple books and television programs being made about the dying species.  While its future is uncertain, continued research and breeding programs have made it possible for the Kakapo to, at the very least, hold on for a bit longer.  If you wish to aid in the survival of this unusual species, the Kakapo Recovery Program accepts donations to help maintain the future of the Kakapo.
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Thorn said...

I don't think evolution is strange, I've learned to just accept the way things are. It's people I find strange.

Nameless Cynic said...

Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See - he devoted a whole chapter to the Kakapo.

And everybody should read the book. (Hell, buy it used from an Amazon vendor, and you basically just pay shipping.)

Ahab said...

Hey, I remember this bird! I recall seeing a clip from a nature show in which a male kakapo tried to engage in courtship with the host of the show. Go to YouTube and look up "Shagged by a Wild Parrot" for the video.

The kakapo is a handsome parrot, although its evolution has given it a very different appearance from other parrots. Its size and chunkiness stand out.

Cyc said...

For those who haven't seen the video Ahab is referencing, go and watch it now, it is worth it.

I was actually shown this right after finishing this article by my fiance, it is the kind of thing that just makes one's day better.