When humans first settled in New Zealand in the 13th century, they found a wonderland of strange creatures—including a green, bumbling parrot with the face of an owl and the mien of an old gentleman. That was the kakapo—the world’s largest parrot, and its only flightless one. It had a set of endearing traits—a disc of whisker-like facial feathers, a ponderous slow-motion gait, and a habit of awkwardly climbing trees with its beak and large wings—that made it easy to love. It also had a set of unfortunate traits—an inability to fly, a naïveté toward danger, a distinctive earthy smell, and a habit of freezing when threatened—that make it easy to kill.
And so the Māori killed them, to make meals and cloaks. The dogs and rats that accompanied the Māori to New Zealand contributed to the slaughter. And in the 19th century, European settlers and their coterie of stoats, weasels, cats, and dogs dealt the coup de grace. The kakapo vanished. The island’s fjords, which once resounded with the booming calls of amorous males, fell silent. Through the 1950s and 1960s, intensive search parties turned up few traces of kakapo, and the few individuals that were found soon died. It looked as if the kakapo was an ex-parrot, literally pining for the fjords.
But that’s no longer the case. In 1977, scientists discovered a hidden population on southerly Stewart Island—including the all-important females that were missing elsewhere. Twelve years later, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation launched a Kakapo Recovery program and relocated the surviving birds to predator-free sanctuaries.
Almost three decades later, the kakapo—once thought extinct—is one of the most thoroughly studied animals on the planet. Every single one of the last 153 kakapos on the planet is known to researchers. Every one carries a radio transmitter, so scientists know its position, as well as its movements and sex life.
And soon, a team led by Andrew Digby from the Department of Conservation will sequence the genomes of all of these birds. By the end of this year, the kakapo will become the first species on Earth for which we have a complete genetic record. Forget hipsters and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: The exemplar of the quantified-self movement is a green, bumbling, oblivion-defying parrot.
The first kakapo to have its DNA fully decoded was a female called Jane. The decoders—Jason Howard and Erich Jarvis from Duke University—were working on a broader effort to sequence …read more
Source:: The Atlantic – Science