Science and Research Update August 2017


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

Threatened Species Summit

In May Kākāpō Programme manager Deidre Vercoe and Scientist Andrew Digby attended the National Science Challenge “Crazy and Ambitious” conference and the Threatened Species Summit in Wellington. The conference was an opportunity to present and discuss bold ideas related to the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, and marked the launch of the Threatened Species Strategy. Dr Digby presented a talk on the Kākāpō125+ genomics programme to a large audience – a suitably ‘Crazy and Ambitious’ project.


Deidre Vercoe and Andrew Digby catch up with Minister for Conservation Maggie Barry


Andrew presents at the Threatened Species Summit. Photo by Nic Toki

Vitamin D

The study to investigate links between vitamin D and kakapo health and fertility has continued, with over 300 blood plasma samples obtained to date from kākāpō across three islands. Initial results have been published in the New Zealand Veterinary Journal. These show that kākāpō have very low vitamin D3 levels compared to other wild birds. Kākāpō being fed supplementary food had higher levels than those feeding on natural foods. These results indicate that kākāpō have naturally low vitamin D levels, despite the fact that the ripe rimu fruit they feed their young in breeding seasons is a vitamin D “superfood”. Further analyses will investigate variation in vitamin D levels among different age groups and seasons.



Cloacitis cases increased dramatically in 2016, so a new research programme has been started to try to find out what’s causing this disease. In May a meeting with vets and scientists at Auckland Zoo yielded four new research proposals:

  • Microbiology: understanding more about the strains of Escherichia bacteria which dominate the kakapo faecal biome. A PhD study at Auckland University
  • Social network analysis: to assess potential transmission pathways. With Otago University and UC Davis, USA
  • Environmental factors: external influences associated with cloacitis, such as roost sites and foraging behaviour. A PhD at Massey University
  • Genetics: investigating genomic signatures of cloacitis. PhD at Otago University


In addition to this, the Kākāpō Team are sampling all of the kākāpō on Whenua Hou four times during 2017, to learn more about patterns of occurrence of the disease.



In July we received the exciting news that Science Exchange will be donating the remainder of the funding required to complete our Kākāpō125+ project, to sequence the genomes of all living kākāpō. The funding for the project has been organised by the Genetic Rescue Foundation, and Science Exchange’s very generous donation will enable us to fulfill our ambition of sequencing the genomes of all 2016 chicks in addition to the 125 birds alive when the project began in 2015. We are also sequencing some important birds which have died recently. In total we will have the genomes of 172 kākāpō: the first time any species has had all of its genomes sequenced. This complete genetic map of kākāpō will be available for anyone to analyse – just contact us if you’re interested in getting involved in the research. We hope to use these data unravel some of the mysteries of kākāpō and help solve some of the big problems facing kākāpō, such as infertility and disease.


The remaining 90 genomes will be sequenced at the Kinghorn Centre of Clinical Genomics in Sydney. We anticipate that all the entire dataset will be available by the end of 2017.