Science and Research Update – April 2017: Cloacitis, GPS and Future Sites

It’s been a busy start to the year despite no breeding on any of the kākāpō islands. This is especially true of our ongoing research and scientific work. This is the first in a series of regular updates that will give you an insight into our ongoing work in these fields as well as the work being done through collaborations with other researchers around the world.

Dr. Andrew Digby, Kākāpō Recovery scientist brings you the latest updates from the team’s current work.




Scientist Andrew Digby tracking kākāpō on Anchor Island

After many kākāpō on Whenua Hou showed potential signs of cloacitis (“crusty bum”) in July last year, the team is checking all birds on the island four times in 2017, rather than once as usual. This is to understand more about the disease – how many birds are affected, and when – and to collect samples for future metagenomic testing. It’s a big task catching all 73 kākāpō on the island, and takes a team of four to six people three to four weeks. It’s a necessary step though: understanding what’s causing this condition is one of the biggest research challenges for the Programme. In January reassuringly few kākāpō showed symptoms; the team will be checking all birds again in March – April.



GPS transmitter testing


Kākāpō Ninihi with a GPS tracker attached to her transmitter

The movements of kākāpō after dark are poorly understood: we only have sparse and anecdotal information to tell us how far and where they roam. In particular, we have little information about how often kākāpō come into contact with each other. Although they’re traditionally thought of as solitary birds, we occasionally do find them close together. We want to know this to help understand disease risk, and whether cloacitis is infectious. For this reason, we’re trialling GPS transmitters on kākāpō. GPS hasn’t been used before on ground-dwelling forest birds like kākāpō and kiwi, mostly because of poor satellite reception under the canopy. However, our initial tests have been promising, so we’ll be doing an expanding trial in late autumn. Accurate spatial information will also tell us more about kākāpō home range size, and the capacity of our island sanctuaries – important to assess the urgency required for finding new sites.



Future sites


Anchor Island in Dusky Sound

In March some of the team visited several islands around Dusky Sound in Fiordland to assess their suitability as future kākāpō sites. With both Whenua Hou and Anchor Island getting full, we anticipate that we’ll need a new breeding island in a couple of breeding seasons’ time. We have identified potentially suitable sites, and are visiting these to better determine how good they will be for kākāpō. Key factors include mammalian predator density (mainly stoats and cats, but also rodents), vegetation types, topography, and natural or man-made hazards.