‘… [it] clambers up and down trees because it cannot fly … it purrs like a cat and smell like a posy of fragrant flowers … it allows itself to be picked up and handled without demur or apparent concern’ (Vietmeyer 1992, p. 69).
Another Ten Bird Meme bird (use the search bar if you need more information on that concept). Sometimes called the Owl parrot, the Kakapo Strigops habroptilis was first described by John Gray in 1845 [adjacent image is John Keulemans’s painting of 1873]. Everything about the Kakapo is extraordinary. It’s a large, nocturnal, cryptically-coloured, terrestrial bird, endemic to New Zealand. A specialized foliage-eater, it seems to live on a metabolic knife-edge, rather like the Giant panda. Successful breeding is limited only to those years when mass fruitings of podocarps occur. This worked fine in a New Zealand where there were lots of podocarps and lots of kakapos (indeed, fossils show that kakapos were formerly abundant), but environmental destruction caused by humans has meant that kakapos have been forced into suboptimal areas where life was even harder than before. This was combined with devastating predation from domestic cats, stoats and rats. Consequently, as is well known, kakapos have become extinct on the mainland and only survive on managed offshore islands where introduced rats and other predators have been eliminated (Vietmeyer 1992, Clout 2001). In 2001 there were 62 individuals. Worldwide. Currently (Jan 2009) there are 90, all of which have names.
The Kakapo has evolved voluminous guts, and these allow it to bulk-process the poor-quality vegetation it eats. Accordingly, it is a giant among parrots (big males reach 3.6 kg), and is the largest extant species. Conventionally stated to be flightless, it is in fact capable of gliding. Certainly it mostly walks places however, and individuals create well-worn trails in the mountainous forest where they live. Distinctively ‘chewed’, compressed fragments of vegetation hang from the plants adjacent to these trails, and kakapos leave both compact cylindrical droppings and white traces of uric acid on the trails. The uric acid streaks apparently ‘have a herb-like smell when fresh’ (Juniper & Parr 1998, p. 372) [image below from wikipedia].
Uniquely among parrots, kakapos are lek breeders, with males booming out loud calls from suitable topographical hollows, and these calls can be heard from about 1 km away. Cryptic plumage and nocturnal habits don’t make much sense in an environment devoid of predators, so the fact that kakapos possess these traits suggests that there were once predators able to kill them. Now we know that New Zealand did possess such predators: endemic giant eagles and large harriers (see articles on New Zealand eagles here and here). What sort of parrot is the Kakapo? The details of parrot phylogeny have long been enigmatic as no published study has sampled data on a representative selection of taxa. However, Wright et al. (2008) recently presented a comprehensive parrot phylogeny. They found that Strigops is the sister-taxon to Nestor (the keas and kakas, also endemic to New Zealand) and that, among crown-group psittaciforms, the two form the most basal clade (some workers use the name Nestoridae for this group, though it is more typical for all crown-group parrots to be united in the ‘family’ Psittacidae).
I would have posted part II of the rhynchosaur series today, but my internet woes have spoiled my plans. And next week a rather big event may get in the way as well.
Refs – –
Clout, M. 2001. Where protection is not enough: active conservation in New Zealand. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 16, 415-416.
Juniper, T. & Parr, M. 1998. Parrots. Pica Press, Mountfield.
Sutherland, W. J. 2002. Science, sex and the kakapo. Nature 419, 265-266.
Vietmeyer, N. D. 1992. The salvation islands. In Calhoun, D. (ed) 1993 Yearbook of Science and the Future. Encyclopaedia Brittanica Inc (Chicago), pp. 60-75.
Wright, T. F., Schirtzinger, E. E., Matsumoto, T., Eberhard, J. R., Graves, G. R., Sanchez, J. J., Capelli, S., Muller, H., Scharpegge, J., Chambers, G. K. & Fleischer, R. C. 2008. A multilocus molecular phylogeny of the parrots (Psittaciformes): support for a Gondwanan origin during the Cretaceous. Molecular Biology and Evolution 25, 2141-2156.