Conservation workers in New Zealand are hoping that studying the preserved droppings, or “coprolites,” of the critically endangered kakapo parrot will help them understand the bird’s dietary requirements and find new habitats for them. Once widespread in New Zealand, the flightless kakapo population was decimated by the introduction of mammalian predators, reduced to only 50 birds by the 1990s. Thanks to conservation measures, including a successful breeding program, the population has increased to around 200 birds, but they still face threats from predators and habitat loss.
The researchers are using ancient DNA techniques to analyze the coprolites, some of which are over 7,000 years old and were deposited in caves and rock shelters. By studying the plants, seeds, and other materials present in the droppings, the researchers hope to uncover what types of habitats and food sources the kakapo relied on in the past. By understanding what the birds need to survive, conservation workers can better identify suitable habitats where the birds could be reintroduced.
The kakapo is a symbol of the conservation challenges facing New Zealand, which has lost much of its unique biodiversity to historical human activities, including deforestation and the introduction of invasive species. New Zealand’s conservation efforts have been hailed as a model for other countries struggling with similar issues, but the success of the kakapo breeding program is tempered by concerns about where the birds can be safely reintroduced. In recent years, some kakapos have been moved to offshore islands, where they are protected from predators, but finding suitable onshore habitats remains a challenge.
While the research on kakapo droppings may seem a bit unorthodox, it is just one example of the many creative strategies being employed by conservationists around the world to protect endangered species. From drones monitoring wildlife to using trained dogs to sniff out invasive species, researchers and activists are constantly seeking new ways to save threatened plants and animals from extinction. By combining cutting-edge science with traditional knowledge and expertise, conservationists are making strides in protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable species.