How 3D Printed Smart Eggs are Saving the Kakapo

The Critically Endangered Kakapo, a beloved parrot endemic to New Zealand, has seen renewed breeding success thanks to innovative technologies.

The future of the vibrant, forest green Kakapo has long been uncertain, due to human-introduced invasive rats, stoats, and feral cats. However, thanks to 3-D printing technology, this year’s breeding season has surpassed everyone’s expectations.  

The Kakapo is one of the more peculiar species within the avian world. In fact, it is referred to by some as the owl parrot thanks to the owl-like and somewhat comical appearance of its wide beak. It’s goofy and cute appearance aside, it is also the only species of bird in the entire world which is both nocturnal and flightless. However, what makes it unique also puts it at risk. Its inability to fly coupled with its habit of halting in peril at the sight of a predator has led to the steady decline of this species. It is currently categorized as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, with only 147 adults currently residing on predator-free islands in New Zealand. 

A juvenile Kakapo. Credit: Kimberly Collins

Assisting this bird in repopulating proves challenging, given its tendency to only breed every 2-4 years. Kakapo breeding coincides with years of good fruit abundance. Specifically, when the Rimu tree bears a new crop of fruit which only happens every 2-4 years. This in addition to inbreeding, have led to only 50% of Kakapo chicks surviving to fledge.  Zoologist, author, and kakapo expert Alison Ballance commented regarding the breeding challenges:

It’s frustrating, and it’s disappointing, and it’s euphoric.”

Rimu and Kamahi tree canopy. Credit: Jocelyn Kinghorn

3D printing to the rescue! The implementation of 3D-printed smart eggs, activity trackers, and a drone have helped bring this spectacular bird back from the brink. So how does it work? Fertile eggs are removed and incubated in a special room only to later be returned and hatched in captivity. During this time, the mothers sit on the 3D-printed smart eggs which begin to make noise as the time approaches for the real chicks to arrive. 

Since December, this year’s breeding season has boosted the survival of 52 Kakapo chicks, one of the most successful breeding seasons on recent record. Andrew Digby, scientific advisor for the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery Program said:

It’s definitely record-breaking in terms of modern times of Kakapo breeding. We’ve never had anything like this.”

Apart from the Kakapo being a charismatic emblem for conservation, they have a cultural significance as well. Tāne Davis, who represents the Ngāi Tahu Māori tribe in the Kakapo Recovery Program said:  

[They have] a very strong significance for the iwi[tribe]. We treasure them because we respect what these taonga[treasured] species gave to us.”  

New technological approaches are providing a renewed sense of hope for this flightless bird, loved the world over. The future is bright for the Kakapo. 

Featured Photo: Sirocco, the official Kakapo conservation spokesbird.
Credit: NZ Department of Conservation
Source: National Geographic

About Stephanie Dittrich

Stephanie Dittrich is a current senior in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz and a transfer student from De Anza College. She is also currently pursuing a Certificate of Achievement in Geospatial Technologies and a second Associates Degree in Graphic Design from Foothill College. She has worked in multiple marketing and design focused roles at environmental nonprofits as well as the Genomics Institute at UC Santa Cruz. She just finished spending 3 months in Costa Rica conducting field work where she did an independent research project and wrote a scientific paper about flight response time in the Morpho peleides butterfly. In her spare time, Stephanie enjoys working on creative photography and design projects, often centered around wildlife photography, as well as more experimental and contemporary subject matter.

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