Alex Boast

PhD Project: Palaeoecology and ancient DNA of the kakapo

2020, University of Auckland

Supervisors: Janet Wilmshurst, George Perry, Jamie Wood


Kākāpō (Strigops habroptilus) are one of New Zealand’s most critically-endangered birds, extinct in their natural range and now surviving on few, intensively-managed offshore islands. Due to their presently contracted and conservation dependent population, contemporary observations offer an incomplete picture of the ecological niche or habitat requirements of kākāpō. However, kākāpō have an extensive late Quaternary (50,000 years ago to present) fossil record and one of the most extensive coprolite records of any endangered animal species worldwide – both of which provide unique research opportunities. In this thesis I firstly review the fossil and recent historic records of kākāpō and identify how the bird was distributed in all NZ’s mainland forests and had clear habitat preferences. I then use both ancient DNA metabarcoding and microfossil data from over 100 kākāpō coprolites collected from eight fossil deposits (most collected specifically for this study), as well as over 100 modern and historically collected kākāpō scats (from Fiordland, Stewart Island, and contemporary island sanctuaries) to investigate three ecological questions. Firstly, what plant species were kākāpō consuming in prehistoric NZ? Secondly, were kākāpō consuming and dispersing native fungi? And thirdly, using kākāpō as a model organism, can the population declines of animal species result in the extinction and turnover in their parasite species? Key findings include the observations that kākāpō were regularly consuming parasitic plants, including mistletoes and the endangered wood rose (Dactylanthus taylori), scented truffle-like ectomycorrhizal fungi appear to have been selectively foraged on by kākāpō, and that the bird’s parasitic community has changed considerably before its decline after its conservation.

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