Are you a fan of Douglas Adams?
Perhaps you have read his novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
If not, no worries. He’s just the imperial lord of science-fiction, and a Jedi master of absurdist humour. I’m sure there’s a library close by.
But even the most loyal Adams fan may not know of his book about conservation, Last Chance to See.
This book is a record of when Adams and zoologist Mark Carwardine went traipsing around the globe looking at endangered animals – one of which was a flightless, New Zealand parrot.
Meet the Kakapo!
Once abundant throughout New Zealand, Kakapo were pressed to the brink of extinction thanks to settlers introducing predators like cats, rats and stoats. In 1995 only 51 were left. Thanks to conservation efforts, including the Kakapo Recovery Program, today there are 128. While this is a step forward, they are still classified as critically-endangered.
So what am I reassuring Douglas Adams about? I refer to a quote from Last Chance to See.
“If you look [at a Kakapo] in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know that it probably will not be.”
Douglas, I’m happy to say that there are people working to ensure a sustainable future for the kakapo.
For example, scientists are investigating how to increase kakapo chick survival rates by improving methods of breeding kakapo in captivity.
When kakapo chicks are hand-reared they sometimes don’t obtain important gut bacteria that help keep them healthy. They usually receive this bacteria from food regurgitated by their mothers. One method being tried by scientists to overcome this problem is called faecal bacteriotherapy.
This method is simple. The faeces of healthy adult kakapo, which contains good gut bacteria, is fed to the hand-reared kakapo chicks. This bacteria then populate the chicks’ gut. Conservation workers can freeze the faeces so it is ready to use when needed. But freezing causes many bacteria to die.
A study tested whether adding glycerol (a sweet-tasting non-toxic chemical compound found in fats and oils) to the frozen faeces keeps more bacteria alive.
Scientists measured the number of different bacteria present in faeces samples before and after freezing. Some were treated with glycerol, others not. The results showed that adding glycerol reduced the number of certain bacteria being killed off by freezing.
Such work is excellent news and bodes well for the future of the kakapo, but more research and funding is needed.
And so my dear reader, why not join me in reassuring Douglas that we will work together to save this species.
To all kakapo out there…