A kākāpō on Codfish Island, New Zealand in 2017. Jake Osborne / Flickr
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Scientists are managing the critically endangered kākāpō population in New Zealand using population sequencing. In addition to helping with kākāpō conservation, the project could also provide more information for similar projects to protect other threatened species.
“Using technology created by Google, we have achieved what is likely the highest quality variant dataset for any endangered species in the world,” Joseph Guhlin, post-doctoral fellow at the University of Otago, said in a statement. “This dataset is made available, through DOC and Ngai Tahu, for future researchers working with Kākāpō.”
The researchers created whole-genome sequence data for almost the entire remaining kākāpō population, or about 169 individuals as of 2018. The study led to the creation of a reusable code and other tools for experts in conservation genomics to use to protect other vulnerable species. It also created a deeper understanding of kākāpō biology, exploring susceptibility to diseases, egg fertility, growth and other biological factors. The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
“Kākāpō suffer from disease and low reproductive output, so by understanding the genetic reasons for these problems, we can now help mitigate them,” explained Andrew Digby, the university’s Science Advisor for Kākāpō Recovery at the Department of Conservation. “It gives us the ability to predict things like kākāpō chick growth and susceptibility to disease, which changes our on-the-ground management practices and will help improve survival rates.”
Kākāpō, a nocturnal type of large, flightless parrot, is endemic to New Zealand and faces threats from disease, predators and infertility, according to the New Zealand Department of Conservation. These birds rely on fruiting rimu trees for breeding, so they breed only every few years, Reuters reported. Because they don’t fly, kākāpō are especially vulnerable to non-native predators who have been introduced to New Zealand over the years.
Conservation efforts are helping the population recover, though. There were only 86 individuals in 2002, Deidre Vercoe, the operational manager for government’s Kākāpō Recovery program, told Reuters. From 2021 to 2022, the population increased 25% to 252 individuals.
The authors of the study on kākāpō sequencing hope that their research will help inform kākāpō conservation decisions and further conservation efforts for other species.
“The Kakapo125+ project is a great example of how genetic data can assist population growth,” Digby said. “The novel genetic and machine learning tools developed can be applied to improve the productivity and survival of other taonga under conservation management.”
The sequencing project was funded by Genomics Aotearoa, a group of research institutions and universities focused on genomics and bioinformatics in New Zealand.