Tetrapod Zoology

The giant green fragrant parrot

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‘… [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].

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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).

Should you want to know more about kakapos, wikipedia’s entry is excellent. See also The Fabulous Kakapo Parrot and the Kakapo Recovery Programme site.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Dartian
    January 30, 2009

    Accordingly, it is a giant among parrots (big males reach 3.6 kg), and is the largest extant species.

    Yet many sources will say that the largest parrot is the hyacinth macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus. Which is only true if by ‘largest’ you actually mean the ‘longest’.
    /Pet peeve off.

  2. #2 Graham King
    January 30, 2009

    ‘… [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).

    What a lovely-sounding creature! Adorable… What a shame it has been so reduced in number… I’m glad to read, doing a bit better now (and with all those being named individuals, hopefully they’ll be attentively conserved).

    Thanks Darren for featuring them, and so doing your bit to publicise their case. (I’m happy to wait longer for the promised more on rhynchosaurs when it’s Kakapo that appear in their stead!)

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    January 30, 2009

    For more on parrot phylogeny….

    And hands up how many other people first heard of the kakapo through Last Chance to See.

  4. #4 ross
    January 30, 2009

    There was a lovely discussion between Stephen Fry and Jonathon Ross on last Fridays show about the kakapo. Apparently Mr Fry is recording a new series of “last chance to see” and it looks pretty interesting.

  5. #5 Sven DiMilo
    January 30, 2009

    Interesting to note that they are believed to be foregut fermenters. Puts one in mind of the equally bizarre hoatzin.

  6. #6 Christopher Taylor
    January 30, 2009

    Puts one in mind of the equally bizarre hoatzin.

    Though by all accounts they smell a heck of a lot better.

    There was another species of kakapo, Strigops greyi, described in 1862 from a single specimen collected (IIRC) in the South Island. “It differs from the common species (habroptilus, Gray) by the broad, well defined, greenish-blue borders of the feathers on the upper portion, the whitish bands on the head feathers, the greyish-white feathers on the forehead and cheeks, the nearly white stern and thighs, and the whitish diagonal spots on the inner feathers and first pinions” (Finsch, 1868). No such specimen has ever been located again, and greyii has been written off as an oldly-coloured habroptilus.

    “Like all those who glory in ‘high degree,’ the Parrots have a poor relation or two to abate their pride. The Owl-billed Parrot (Stringops habroptilus) of New Zealand is as lowly as ‘the younger son of a younger brother.’ If birds were to be classified by the sternum only, then the Stringops should be put near the Apteryx and the Tinamou attached to the train of the Peacock.”

  7. #7 Christopher Taylor
    January 30, 2009

    I meant “oddly-coloured”, of course.

  8. #8 David Craven
    January 30, 2009

    One of my favourite birds. I remember seeing a doc where the poor male climbs the hill, makes his mating call, and for years no females came, just other lonely males. Very sad.

    There’s a stuffed pair in a case in the Yorkshire Museum that features one of my all-time favourite labels. On the back there’s a hand-written note that says something like “Pair of extremely rare Kakapo parrots, shot by the Right Revd. RWB Hardy 1874″

    I just love the irony.

    (I may have the Rev’s name wrong, and the date too)

  9. #9 David Marjanović
    January 30, 2009

    For more on parrot phylogeny….

    The phylogeny is fine, but the dating rests on, let’s say, untested assumptions. Somehow my comments on that article never seem to be accepted (grrlscientist moderates her comments!), so I post my third attempt here, too, just to make sure it gets preserved somewhere.

    ————————————————————

    From the figure legend you cite:

    FIG. 3. — Chronograms showing divergence times among parrot genera based a Bayesian relaxed-clock approach, with 2 alternative dates for the basal divergence between the New Zealand endemics Nestor and Strigops and the remaining psittaciforms: (a) node dated to 50 MYA, based on the hypothesized divergence between modern psittaciforms and fossils dated to the Lower Eocene; and (b) node dated to 82 MYA, based on the split between New Zealand and Gondwana.

    (a) is based on the assumption that the fossil record of the northern hemisphere can be trusted when it shows stem-parrots but no crown-parrots in the early and middle Eocene (the London Clay and Messel for example). The southern hemisphere has hardly yielded any birds from that epoch, unfortunately.

    (b) is based on the assumption that the common ancestors of kea and kakapo did not reach New Zealand by flying across the Tasman Sea, but instead already were there when NZ broke off Antarctica in the Campanian (82 million years ago, to be precise).

    These two assumptions contradict each other, so it’s important not to confuse the results that are based on them.

    Now a quote from you:

    Further, the basal split between the New Zealand taxa, Nestor and Strigops, suggests that this origin occurred while New Zealand and Australasia were still part of the Gondwana supercontinent during the Cretaceous period.

    So, Wright et al. use their tree (which is an impressive achievement, BTW) to argue for the assumption that leads to (b) and thus against the assumption that leads to (a).

    I submit that they shouldn’t, because they’ve overlooked a few other possibilities. To start, parrots, including the kea, can fly, so they are able to cross ocean barriers as long as they aren’t too wide. Importantly, Wright et al. already accept that parrots are capable of dispersal between continents; otherwise they’d have had to date the separation between the African parrots and their South American sister-group to no less than 105 million years ago (when Africa broke off Outer Gondwana = South America + Antarctica + Oz + NZ), near the end of the Early Cretaceous, which would be pretty ludicrous when compared to the fossil record.

    So, what if (a) is right? Then it says that some common ancestor of Nestor and Strigops flew to NZ from Australia or even Antarctica in the mid-late Eocene, when the Tasman Sea and the Antarctic Ocean were narrower than today. I don’t see what’s so unparsimonious about this hypothesis that Wright et al. felt compelled to dismiss it.

    Additionally, other recently published analyses using similar methods suggest that both Passeriformes and Columbiformes originated in Gondwana during the Cretaceous.

    These analyses, too, overlooked possibilities of dispersal.

    The team also found that their various phylogenies did not produce any consistent placement of the eight outgroups as sister to the parrots, reinforcing the idea that the parrots and cockatoos do not have any close sister relationships with other modern birds.

    For a phenetic definition of “close”.

    Of course, to actually sort that problem out, Wright et al. would have needed to make a complete analysis of the phylogeny of Neornithes, and I really can’t blame them for not doing such a mammoth study!

    —————————

    - First, it seems that the bauplan of parrots inhabiting the dry interior of Australia (small bills, long pointed wings, long pointed tails, speculum as well as a nomadic lifestyle and non-seasonal breeding) has developed at least five times. Nymphicus for the cacatuids, Polytelis for the psittaculids, Neophema and Neopsephotus on one hand, and Psephotus and Northiella on two other hands for the platycercids and finally Melopsittacus for the loriids. This suggests some very strong evolutionary pressure.

    Yes — the drying of Australia. The Australian interior used to be rainforest…

    - Second, the psittacid tree shows a weird distributional pattern: The most basal genus Coracopsis is Madagascan, next comes Papuan Psittrichas, then African Psittacus and Poicephalus and finally, the Neotropan assemblage. Since I’m highly sceptical of modern parrots evolving in the Cretaceous, this seems to suggest a double invasion of Africa (and by extension the Americas) via Kerguelen in the Palaeogene.

    Clearly, dispersal is the most parsimonious suggestion here; I submit it also is for the origin of the NZ parrots.

  10. #10 Arikia
    January 30, 2009

    *&)*$#@@$&(

    CUTE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I can has?

  11. #11 Daniella Perea
    January 30, 2009

    Somehow my comments on that article never seem to be accepted (grrlscientist moderates her comments!), so I post my third attempt here, too, just to make sure it gets preserved somewhere.

    Grrlscientist’s moderation is weird. I’ve also posted comments there that she never posted. I think she rejects anything that seems to criticize or correct. That’s her prerogative of course, but it’s still weird.

  12. #12 sublunary
    January 30, 2009

    Thanks for posting this with such good timing! I was just reading a comment thread on Pharyngula that ended up discussing New Zealand parrots and arguing over which species was most likely the infamous “head raping parrot”. I’d never known New Zealand even had parrots! I really learned a lot of interesting stuff from this post.

    And now I serisouly wish kakapos were nonendangered and widely available as pets. Purring parrots? WANT.

  13. #13 Darren Naish
    January 30, 2009

    Sublunary: you may be interested to know that the maori kept kakapos as pets. George Grey (twice governer of New Zealand during the mid-late 1800s) said that a particularly affectionate one was as tame and friendly as any good dog. Of course, the maori also hunted the kakapo for its meat and skin.

  14. #14 Abindarraez
    January 30, 2009

    The kakapo has been my all-time favourite bird since I read what Douglas Adams wrote about it in Last Chance to See. Thanks Darren for briefly covering them!

  15. #15 Dr Vector
    January 30, 2009

    arguing over which species was most likely the infamous “head raping parrot”

    More data please!

  16. #16 Tony Lucas
    January 30, 2009

    Because of the exquisite smell these birds exude it makes them one of the easiest bids to find for capture and relocation. The Department of Conservation uses specially trained dogs to find the birds.
    Their smell however has been their downfall as it has made them easy for predators to find.
    The sad part is that with all the birds they have found the vast majority are males, leaving only a very small percentage of females to rely on to save the species.

    I believe the North island species was actually a subspecies of the South Island species which became totally extinct well before the population was reduced in the South Island.

    As for pre-colonisation predators it seems the Kakapo could have had more than Giant eagles to contend with, the fossil record seems to indicate he was also a large species of Boa present in New Zealand as well as a species of crocodile.
    The Eagles may not have been much of a danger to the Kakapo, as Kakapo are nocturnal.
    I believe somewhere in the fossil record there must be a moderately large nocturnal predatory species which is as yet undiscovered, as you have species such as the Kiwi and Kakapo which are strictly nocturnal which most of the predatory birds found so far are not.
    With this abundant food supply he must have been something to take advantage of it.
    Another mystery of the New Zealand fossil record is that they have been no scavenger species come to light.
    There must’ve been something to take advantage of the carcasses left around, yet the only species that moderately fits the bill is the now extinct New Zealand Raven or possibly the Adzebill which due to its unusual bill arrangement they are still trying to figure out what it ate.

    Tony Lucas
    New Zealand

  17. #17 Zach Miller
    January 30, 2009

    Ah, my favorite parrot! Now hold up about its diet–I saw a nature show awhile back showing a maurading gang of kakapos raiding gull nests and eating the chicks.

  18. #18 Lilian Nattel
    January 30, 2009

    I’ve heard of kakapos but never knew anything about them. Thank you!

  19. #19 Traumador the Tyrannosaur
    January 30, 2009

    sublunary-

    kakapos are indeed the “head raping parrot”s. at the new zealand national museum (te papa) they have in their kakapo display a special helmet the department of conservation workers designed to try and captalize on the fact the male kakapos loved to try and procreate with human visitors heads. it is a mountain climbing helmet with dozens of condoms glued all over it. the rational being if the kakapo had a good enough time up there, the helmet would collect a sample which could be saved until a female was ready for it.

    fortunantely since than they’ve figured out if they provide the kakapos with enough food they get fertile every year, as opposed to the poor males getting anxy waiting for the females to naturally get eggnaughtable.

  20. #20 LeeB
    January 30, 2009

    David: you are right that the assumption that the ancestor of Kea and Kakapo was in New Zealand when it split off Australia is dodgy; most of New Zealand was underwater during the late Oligocene to earliest Miocene 25-22 MYA.
    The paper in Proc. Roy. Soc. B. this month on a Miocene Sphenodontine apparently makes a case that there was some land above water, but whether it was enough for parrots to survive on is a moot point.
    Certainly the short tailed bat family was thought to be related distantly to South American bats and have no relatives elsewhere, but was then found to also occur as fossils in Australia 35 MYA.
    And cicadas seem to have got here twice, and one group is shared with New Caledonia suggesting an alternate dispersal route.
    So overseas dispersal of flying organisms seems possible.

    Tony: apparently study of C and N isotopes suggests the Adzebill was indeed a carnivore.
    Also although fossil snakes were reported from N.Z. in 2002 , G. Gibbs in “Ghosts of Gondwana” on page 65 states that the fossil tooth involved was discovered a year later to belong to a galaxiid fish.
    Crocodile fossils are however definitly present in Miocene deposits c. 15 Mya in the South Island.

  21. #21 Christopher Taylor
    January 30, 2009

    I believe the North island species was actually a subspecies of the South Island species which became totally extinct well before the population was reduced in the South Island.

    Three subspecies have been named for kakapo (not including Strigops greyii) – North Island, lowland South Island, montane South Island. None of them is in current use, but the sad fact is that both the North Island and lowland South Island populations died out too early to be properly compared with the surviving montane South Island kakapo.

  22. #22 Daniel
    January 30, 2009

    Zach: I believe you are thinking of the kea, another New Zealand parrot, which eats chicks of shearwaters in the Kaikoura mountains

  23. #23 Christopher Taylor
    January 31, 2009

    The Antipodes parakeet will also scavenge dead chicks and abandoned eggs from nesting seabirds. Lot of seabirds on the Antipodes.

  24. #24 Mark Evans
    January 31, 2009

    Yay for “Last Chance to See”.
    I particularly like the description of New Zealand – “if you took Norway, crumpled it up a bit, flung it to the other side of the world and filled it with birds you’d be wasting your time as somebody has already done it” (I’m paraphrasing as my copy isn’t to hand).
    The BBC has a site for the new series (http://www.bbc.co.uk/lastchancetosee/), Steven Fry is in New Zealand, and you can listen to the original Kakapo radio show. Good to hear Peter Jones’s voice again as well.

  25. #25 David Marjanović
    January 31, 2009

    I think she rejects anything that seems to criticize or correct.

    I thought so, too, but in the same post she let a comment stand that says she hasn’t done her homework!

  26. #26 Alan
    January 31, 2009

    According to the Kakapo Recovery Programme website, the current world population is 90 birds (up from 50 in 1995). The current breeding season has started, and there is at least one fertile egg so far.

  27. #27 John Carlson
    January 31, 2009

    Instead of natural history or phylogenetics, I wanted to comment on the illustration you used for the Kakapo. Although the lithograph is from Buller’s Birds of New Zealand, the artist is in fact John Gerrard Keulemans, a Dutch illustrator who was quite prolific and provided many of the illustrations for a number of monographs and journals including the Ibis in the late 1800’s.

  28. #28 Darren Naish
    January 31, 2009

    I should have recognised this, dammit. Thanks.

  29. #29 Sheri Williamson
    January 31, 2009

    Oh, to bury my nose in that thick, fluffy plumage and breathe in parrot perfume!

    Dartian wrote:

    Yet many sources will say that the largest parrot is the hyacinth macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus. Which is only true if by ‘largest’ you actually mean the ‘longest’.
    /Pet peeve off.

    Yeah, it peeves me too. There are places where length is a reasonable tie breaker for largest/smallest honors, but weight makes so much more sense when there are long appendages involved. Really, now – would any sane person say that a 40-cm, 30-g Fork-tailed Flycatcher is “larger” than a 35-cm, 400-g Common Moorhen?

  30. #30 Monado, FCD
    January 31, 2009

    I thought that the head-raping parrot was the kea.

    Also, if birds try to mate with, or display to, people’s heads, it’s a sign that too many people have been peering at the nestlings and mis-calibrating their “what Our Kind looks like” settings. Anyone doing research on them should disguise their head and use “mommy” puppets for nestlings to focus on. That’s done quite successfully in breeding programs for rare cranes.

  31. #31 llewelly
    January 31, 2009

    Daniella Perea | January 30, 2009 11:42 AM:

    Grrlscientist’s moderation is weird. I’ve also posted comments there that she never posted. I think she rejects anything that seems to criticize or correct. That’s her prerogative of course, but it’s still weird.

    This comment is critical (and not much help), yet she posted it. I don’t comment there often, but as far as I recall she’s posted all critical comments I’ve written. You and David Marjanovic should email her and try to find out more. It could be a spam filter or sorting issue – or perhaps she just hasn’t checked the moderation queue since the comments appeared in it.

  32. #32 David Marjanović
    February 1, 2009

    perhaps she just hasn’t checked the moderation queue since the comments appeared in it.

    That would mean she hasn’t checked since Christmas. And that’s not the case — not only are there more recent posts by her, there are also more recent comments. She has also commented on PZ’s gratulation to her… birdday.

  33. #33 David Marjanović
    February 1, 2009

    She says she’s got bipolar disorder…

  34. #34 farinosa
    February 1, 2009

    Mark Evans – “The BBC has a site for the new series (http://www.bbc.co.uk/lastchancetosee/), Steven Fry is in New Zealand, and you can listen to the original Kakapo radio show.”

    When I try to watch the clips here in Yankeeland, I get a banner across the screen “Not available in your area”. So much for the free and open internet. Bloody blighters at the Beeb!

  35. #35 Morgan Churchill
    February 1, 2009

    IIRC, the rational for putting the New Zealand Parrots in there own family is that most bird taxonomic authorities place Cockatoos in their own family (Cacautuidae). In order to keep this family monophyletic, you need to recognize both Nestoridae and Psittacidae as separate families.

  36. #36 John Scanlon FCD
    February 2, 2009

    “Last Chance to See” was great, but I think my first vicarious immersion in Kakapo-country was Durrell’s “Two In the Bush”. Just showing my age, I know.

    LeeB has the right story about the NZ ‘snake’. A fragment collected in Otago by Jim McNamara and that I examined in Adelaide in 2001 had tooth shape and attachment, and what little was left of the bone surface, that I could not differentiate from a pterygoid of a madtsoiid snake (similar to Wonambi and Yurlunggur). We started writing it up. Then, a second piece the NZers sent us photos of was clearly the same thing, and we prepared to involve several coauthors but had to acknowledge the improbability of two palatal fragments turning up without any trace of a vertebra (which would have been much larger, hundreds of times more numerous, and more robust elements). That was when the galaxiids were compared over in NZ, and we called the whole thing off (but not before someone submitted an abstract for the IPC in Sydney and got quoted in National Geographic). Snake tooth attachment is absolutely distinctive among tetrapods, but fish…

  37. #37 John Scanlon FCD
    February 2, 2009

    And next week a rather big event may get in the way as well.

    I hope that all goes well and congratulations will be in order. The sleep-deprivation may not be as bad as the first time, but good luck with that.

  38. #38 Michael Anderson
    February 12, 2009

    As soon as I saw the “head-raping parrot” line I immediately thought “must be Keas”. Keas are notoriously aggressive, they love to rip the windshield wipers off cars for example. Who’d have guessed the sweet and cute, rotund, fluffy and lovable Kakapo was the culprit! ;)

  39. #39 Liz Dobson
    August 2, 2009

    Thanks to David Craven (Jan 30th 2009) for pointing me in the direction of my first taxidermic kakapo! If you are interested, David, I can give you chapter & verse on the label. I haven’t seen it yet, but when I turned up at the museum, only to learn their kakapo was in store & not available to view, they gave me a booklet by way of consolation: ‘Birds in the Yorkshire Museum’ by M. L. Denton. This refers to a mixed case of kakapo & kiwi shot by the Rev. Charles M. Meysey Thompson in 1880.

    I have an appointment to see the specimens later in the month, & hope to learn more about the Rev & his collecting habits. I think the M-T’s were an important family in Yorkshire. I expect the Rev was a younger son sent out to the Colonies to make his way as a man of God & celebrate God’s creation by shooting & stuffing it. It’s a fascinating period of history, rife with paradox.

    I’m going out to New Zealand later this year to see a real live kakapo: Sirocco the ambassadorial parrot. In the meantime, I am ‘collecting’ references to skins, taxidermic specimens & any other kakapo-related artefacts in British museums. If anyone else knows of any (however vaguely), please do let me know.

    I’ve some video clips & the original ‘Last Chance to See’ radio episode on the kakapo linked to my Facebook page – might be worth anyone experiencing difficulties with BBC availability checking in to see if they have better luck there?

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