Fungal Outbreak Threatens Kākāpō Recovery

Conservation efforts to increase Kākāpō population numbers have hit a set back due to an outbreak of aspergillosis, a fungal disease.

The Kākāpō recovery program under the New Zealand Department of Conservation has been running for over 25 years and has seen success in rebuilding population numbers, especially on invasive free islands. However, a fungal disease, aspergillosis, has unexpectedly hit the Kākāpō population. Now staff are now scrambling to understand what is causing this outbreak.

Until now this disease has been unprecedented in the rare parrot species, but recently has been linked to 1 adult and 3 chick Kākāpō deaths. The Kākāpō Recovery team has teamed up with wildlife vets around the world to understand what is causing this fungal outbreak.

Department of Conservation staff member feeds juvenile Kākāpō. Photo credit: Kimberly Collins

Five Kākāpō were brought into the Auckland Zoo and provided treatment for possible aspergillosis. The veternarians conducted CT scans on four of these birds, and found that all of them were infected with aspergillosis. Dr James Chatterton from the From the New Zealand Centre for Conservation Medicine and Auckland Zoo, explained that the Aspergillus fungus is found everywhere in the environment and only becomes an issue in animals that are distressed with compromised immune systems. However, chicks are showing to contract the disease after sharing a nest with other infected birds.

So far the outbreak is confined to invasive free Whenua Hou island, where there were initial concerns that artificial nest boxes were contributing to the problem. The Kākāpō conservation team was puzzled to find that the problem is most prevalent in natural nest cavities. Aspergillosis is very difficult to treat and diagnose, as all three chicks that succumbed to the disease were looking well right up until they became close to death. The problem with fungal infections is that once the bird shows signs that they are sick it’s normally too late for successful treatment.

Juvenile kākāpō on Anchor Island in Dusky Sound. Photo Credit: Kimberly Collins

Aside from deaths linked to aspergillosis, two adult males and one more chick also died in May lowering the critically endangered Kākāpō population to 142 adults and 73 chicks. Six more birds have also been sent to Auckland Zoo from Whenua Hous to be scanned for aspergillosis after elevated white blood cell counts were recorded.

While scientists are not yet sure how to stop this fungal disease from spreading, vets from around the world are working to find a solution. Situations like these demonstrate the importance of preserving and restoring Kākāpō habitats, like invasive free Whenua Hou island. That way Kākāpōs have a space to thrive once their health is restored.

Source: Radio New Zealand
Feature Photo: Kākāpō on Codfish Island, Whenua Hou, New Zealand. Credit: Jake Osborne

About Isabelle Everhart

Isabelle Everhart is a current senior at UC Santa Cruz, pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies after transferring from Santa Barbara City College with an A.A. in Liberal Arts. She is expected to graduate summer 2019 after completing a field quarter in California Ecology and Conservation with the UC Natural Reserve System. Her background work in sustainability lead to her involvement in piloting a LEED lab on the UCSC campus, which uses the LEED green building certification standard to assess building operations in creating feasibility studies. Her passion for sustainability, conservation, and marine-related species make her excited to join the Island Conservation Communications team.

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