The other flightless, night-dwelling bird

First written in March 2015.

New Zealand is well-known for our array of birds-that-are-more-like-mammals (thanks, evolution!). We have long been recognised for our namesake bird, the kiwi, but the roly-poly kākāpō is rising through the ranks of “world famous in NZ” stars. I’d contend the kākāpo is the fourth most popular folk-bird in NZ, seeing as they’re pretty much the avian version of the Flight of the Conchords: awkward but endearing and oh-so-funny. If you haven’t heard of these delightful but eccentric parrots, I can guarantee your life will be all the richer once you get to know them!

Sirocco Kākāpō.  Image by Chris Birmingham/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Sirocco Kākāpō. Image by Chris Birmingham/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

The kākāpo is a rotund parrot with an owlish face and exquisite green mottled feathers. This soft, dappled green is excellent for blending into the lush NZ bush, which is handy for kākāpo who seem opt for “freeze” rather than “fight or flight” when taken by surprise. Kākāpo take the title for “world’s heaviest parrot” so it is no wonder they also take the honour for “world’s only flightless parrot.” These adaptations served them well in pre-human NZ, as they were able to effectively avoid predation by the giant but now extinct Haast’s Eagle that ruled the daylight skies. They may not be able to soar majestically, but kākāpo are great at “controlled falls” out of trees, with the grace and elegance of a flying brick. Despite their limited flight abilities, kākāpo are fantastic climbers and one has even been known to evade capture by Department of Conservation rangers by scaling a rimu tree tens of metres tall. Cheeky as!

Haast’s Eagle was the largest eagle known to have existed. Here it is pictured attacking moa (also extinct).  Image by John Megahan/PLoS Biology (CC BY 2.5).

Haast’s Eagle was the largest eagle known to have existed. Here it is pictured attacking moa (also extinct). Image by John Megahan/PLoS Biology (CC BY 2.5).

Kākāpo are largely solitary birds, leaving their home range only to breed. Like many of their other characteristics, the kākāpo’s courtship is rather unusual. Kākāpo are considered “lek” breeders, which means that the males compete with each other to attract the attention of females. The male kākāpo’s “stall” in this “marketplace of seduction” consists of a shallow bowl dug into the ground, cleared of any forest debris, with a couple of tracks leading to it. This “track and bowl”, typically located high up on a hilltop, is the stage for a remarkable performance. Forget milkshakes ‘cause they don’t bring the kākāpo to the yard – these birds are are all about that bass. The male will puff himself up into a fat feathery ball and commence “booming.”

His boom is amplified by the bowl and reverberates across the valleys, attracting females from far and wide. Sometimes he will alternate his bassy booms with a “ching” call that allows females to hone in on his location. Gotta get dat boom-boom-ching!

What happens next? This video featuring Spokesbird for Conservation Sirocco Kākāpo may give you an idea…

The female will then typically lay one to four eggs, that will hatch after 30 days. You can see a kākāpo hatchling in this video (they aren’t the most attractive baby birds, hey).

This bizarre breeding display only occurs once every couple of years – only when there’s sufficient rimu fruit around. Ordinarily for kākāpo, this slow pace would be all good, as they can live for 90 years, and maybe even 120 years. However, human settlement, habitat destruction and introduced pests such as stoats and cats have led to a significant decline in kākāpo numbers. Fossil records indicate that the kākāpo were once widespread throughout NZ and were our third most common bird, but today, they are considered critically endangered.

Kākāpō chicks.  Image by Dianne Mason/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Kākāpō chicks. Image by Dianne Mason/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Conservation efforts began as early as the 1890s, with conservationist Richard Henry transporting 200 kākāpo in his dinghy from Fiordland to Resolution Island in an attempt to save them. Sadly, stoats soon swum to Resolution Island and wiped out Richard Henry’s endeavours within just six years. Today, only 126 kākāpo remain, and each is individually named – a stark reminder of the species’ precarious situation. These survivors live on offshore, predator-free islands, with about half calling Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) home.

The good folk at the Kākāpo Recovery programme intensely manage the kākāpo population and have overseen an increase in their population from just 86 individuals in 2005. Each bird is fitted with a radio transmitter and supplementary food is provided to encourage successful breeding. The kākāpo are trained to use their food hoppers with “Hansel & Gretel” style trails of kumara. Some hoppers are even fitted with devices able to identify specific kākāpo via their radio transmitter – this prevents naughty kākāpo from raiding their neighbours’ tucker!

Kākāpō at a feeding station.  Image by Josie Beruldsen/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Kākāpō at a feeding station. Image by Josie Beruldsen/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

One particularly mischievous kākāpo is Sirocco, who I have already mentioned is the Spokesbird for Conservation and star of “Last Chance to See” with Stephen Fry. Sirocco had a rocky start to life, suffering from a respiratory illness at three weeks old. In order to improve his chances of survival, Sirocco was handraised and returned to the wild once he was healthy, after a few months in human care. However this stint in the company of humans had a lasting effect, as it soon became clear Sirocco believed he was Homo sapiens and not Strigops habroptilus. Sirocco was so enamoured with his human saviours that he built his “track and bowl” on the path between the ranger hut and toilet on Codfish Island, and attempted to mate with any unsuspecting volunteer or ranger who ventured out for a midnight pee. Due to his imprinting on humans, Sirocco was deemed unsuitable for breeding but he had a natural affinity for the limelight. He spends most of his time living peacefully in the wild, but does “go on tour” like any rockstar, visiting various locations around NZ.

Sirocco Kākāpō is full of character.  Image by Darren Scott (CC BY 2.0).

Sirocco Kākāpō is full of character. Image by Darren Scott (CC BY 2.0).

Kākāpo are intelligent, curious and have distinct personalities – they are an extraordinary species, precious taonga (treasure), that we cannot afford to lose. With charismatic advocates like Sirocco, a well-funded breeding programme and the procurement of predator-free habitat, there is hope for our fascinating feathered friends.

This post was inspired by a recent talk given at Forest & Bird.

You can visit Sirocco Kākāpo on Facebook here.

You can visit Kākāpo Recovery on their website or on Facebook.

Counting birds at Te Waihora

First written in February 2015.

Forget counting sheep, tallying our feathered friends is a surefire way to get to sleep – not because it’s boring, but rather exhausting.

Recently, I ventured out across the Canterbury Plains to Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) to participate in a planning day for the Te Waihora Trust’s annual bird count. Despite its proximity to Christchurch, I had never visited this vast, 5000-year-old lagoon, whose Māori name means “spreading waters.” The lake has a fascinating history, both ecologically and culturally. It was formerly the mouth of the Waimakariri river and as our accompanying ranger explained, “The Waimak is like an out-of-control water hose. It’s only due to human intervention that it’s stayed put.” To the local Maori people, Ngai Tahu, the lake has long held significance as a mahinga kai (important site for food and other natural resources). For hundreds of years, they cleverly maintained the lake at an optimal level for the birdlife, an important food source, while eels and fish were abundant. Sadly, post-Pakeha settlement activities such as farming and commercial fishing have degraded the lake and the life it supported.

Satellite image of Banks Peninsula. Te Waihora is the murky green body of water at the bottom left.  Image by Jesse Allan/LANDSAT 7 via NASA/Earth Observatory.

Satellite image of Banks Peninsula. Te Waihora is the murky green body of water at the bottom left. Image by Jesse Allan/LANDSAT 7 via NASA/Earth Observatory.

Nonetheless, Te Waihora remains an important bird habitat, with as many as 98,000 birds present at any one time, and more than 150 species recorded. Its natural beauty is of the sweeping, sparse variety. Emerging from the surrounds of farm fields onto the vast Greenpark Sands reveals an extraordinary expanse of brown, red and dull green beneath a bowed grey sky. The ground is cracked and dry – a symptom of the ongoing drought in Canterbury.

Greenpark Sands.

Greenpark Sands.

Just a few days ago, a flock of around 600 banded dotterels were here, but today we can only find a few flocks of about ten, camouflaged in the glasswort and salt grass. The lake is the fifth largest in New Zealand, so there is lots of area for the birds to cover. My binoculars are heavy and difficult to keep steady, and with the birds constantly moving, it requires good concentration to count them. Just imagine counting hundreds, or thousands! We near the lake edge, which appears shimmering grey in the heat haze (even though it’s quite chilly). There are black swans, wrybills and pied stilts spied from binoculars. A tern soars overhead. The avid birders are excited to spot a lone red-necked stint amongst some dotterels, a species that migrates between the Arctic and Australasia. A couple of hours have passed as we have wound across the saltmarsh, stopping intermittently to watch and practice counting. It’s tiring work. I’m just an amateur keen to see beautiful birds and be outdoors, but some “twitchers” take their birds very, very seriously.

Banded dotterel.  Image by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Banded dotterel. Image by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0).

I couldn’t make the actual count itself – but an impressive 48,000 birds were counted. You can visit the Waihora Ellesmere trust on Facebook to see pictures of the count.

Do fish vomit?

First written in October 2013. Guest blogger Lachy joins me to explore the fascinating world of fish. We wrote this piece for a science communication class.

Fish are friends, right? Yes they are. But unlike our human friends, we don’t know some basic things about them. So in order to get to know our aquatic acquaintances better, here’s three things we’ve wondered about recently.

1. Do fish vomit?

Inspired by this incredible Youtube video of cats puking to a techno soundtrack, we wondered, do fish vomit? With his usual “I know everything guys” approach, Lachy immediately claimed that vomiting is a function all vertebrates must have. Ellen, being skeptical of such a presumptuous claim, used her impressive googling skills to uncover the truth behind this piscine puzzle.

BLARGHARGHABLARG.  Image by Maya/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

BLARGHARGHABLARG. Image by Maya/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

It turns out, fish can indeed upchuck their lunch. However, Lachy’s assertion that vomiting is a behaviour common to all vertebrates isn’t correct. Rats can’t spew!

2. What happens to fish in space? 

Image by Airport_Whiskey / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Image by Airport_Whiskey / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Living on Earth has its upsides. Literally. We (almost always) know which way is up or down. But in space, up or down doesn’t even exist! This can make life hard for creatures when they get sent to space by meddling astronauts. Lachy has seen a Youtube video of pigeons in zero gravity, and they really struggled. So what about fish in space? Would Dory be able to “just keep swimming?”

Hypothetically it could be very hard for fish. They stay upright in our oceans because of buoyancy: the force of gravity acts more strongly on the water around them than on themselves. So in space, they might just float around randomly, unable to control their movements or swim at all!

In 1973, this mystery was investigated in the Skylab. Two “mummichog” specimens were observed to dive incessantly, resulting in circular motions “as if stuck to the hands of a clock.” This phenomenon is called “looping.” But after a few days,  the mummichogs stopped such weird locomotion and began to swim normally, with their backs oriented towards the cabin’s light source.

3. Do fish feel pain?

If you’ve ever gone fishing, you’ve probably seen fish writhing as they are reeled from their watery homes, hook embedded in their mouth. Are these poor creatures in pain? Battles have raged in both the scientific literature and public court of opinion over whether fish can feel pain. But the most recent study, conducted by an interdisciplinary team of neurobiologists, fishery scientists and behavioural ecologists, concluded that fish do not feel pain the same way humans do.

Studies claiming fish can feel pain have relied on interpreting fish behaviour. But fish lack the part of the brain that perceives pain in humans, and administering painkillers, such as morphine, produces no effect on them. This suggests fish can’t feel pain, but either way it doesn’t make sense to decipher the meaning of fishy behaviour from a human perspective.

Searching for life out there

First written in April 2013.

In another triumph for NASA’s Kepler mission, two new planetary systems have been discovered. While such a discovery is not really a rare event anymore – 137 new exoplanets were found last year – a couple of factors make this finding particularly noteworthy.

First of all, some of the planets are “Super-Earths” – that is, they’re not too much bigger than our home planet. One of them, Kepler 62f, has a radius only 40% larger than that of Earth. What’s more, it is postulated to have a rocky composition.

Secondly, three of the planets are located in the so-called “habitable zone.” This is the region surrounding a star in which a planet could theoretically have liquid water on its surface. One of the planets, Kepler 62f, is the closest in size to Earth ever discovered in a habitable zone. Another, Kepler 69c, orbits a star that belongs to the same classification of our sun (G-type). Kepler scientists claim this is “a significant milestone toward finding truly Earth-like planets.”

Artist’s impression of Kepler 69c. Image via NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech.

Artist’s impression of Kepler 69c. Image via NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech.

While Earth-like planets seem like a logical starting point for our quest to find extra-terrestrial life, restricting our search to such a narrow range of environments may in fact be unnecessarily limiting.

There are many other factors to consider when it comes to deciding whether liquid water can exist on a given planet – from atmosphere, to stellar radiation, the age and type of the host star and of course an origin for water. Conversely, it is possible that environments conducive to life as we know it exist outside habitable zones – in fact, there is one such potential environment in our own solar system. Jupiter’s moon Europa is hypothesized to harbor a subsurface ocean similar to the deep oceans of Earth. The likelihood of this was bolstered recently with the discovery of an “unidentified and unclassified” bacterium in a lake buried under kilometres of ice in Antarctica, an environment postulated to be similar to that of Europa.  Effects ranging from volcanic activity to planetary mass can facilitate conditions beneficial to life, and it is also possible that life may originate on a planet that starts in the habitable zone, but then ends up outside it.

Europa. Image by NASA/JPL/DLR.

Europa. Image by NASA/JPL/DLR.

The existence of extremophiles on Earth suggests life can arise in a diverse range of conditions – on Earth it can exist in volcanic vents and nuclear waste! The resilience of life is epitomized by tardigrades and bdelloid rotifers, peculiar organisms which are extremely resitant to harmful radiation and extreme temperatures. Tardigrades have even been shown to survive in the vacuum of outer space. A couple of other factors suggest that life may be more resilient than we expect: organic molecules are able to exist in the interstellar medium, despite the inhospitable radiation. Additionally, geological evidence suggests that life appeared early in Earth’s history – perhaps as early as 3.85 billion years ago. Earth back then wasn’t like Earth today: it was hot, with a toxic atmosphere of carbon dioxide, ammonia and other gases, and a multitude of volcanoes. Despite this seemingly uninhabitable environment, life managed to emerge.

Tardigrade. Image by Bob Goldtsein and Vicky Madden (UNC Chapel Hill) (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Tardigrade. Image by Bob Goldtsein and Vicky Madden (UNC Chapel Hill) (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The border between living and non-living is blurred, and exactly what constitutes a living being is a contentious issue. Biology has traditionally characterised life as matter that is able to metabolise, grow, respire and reproduce – but this definition is arbitrary and also problematic, as it leaves entities such as viruses in a grey area. Viruses possess genes, utilise natural selection and reproduce via self assembly, however they lack cellular structure, metabolism and cannot reproduce independently. These perceived shortcomings preclude them from the ranks of living things. Our definition of life has been inconstant, and has transformed over time. For example, the invention of the microscope opened up a whole new world of microbial life to human understanding. However, redefining life might not solve this problem  – because definitions refer to words and meanings, which are inherently flexible and dynamic. What we need is “an adequately general theory of living systems” and this requires expansion of our conception of life beyond what we observe on Earth. One such theory has been proposed already, in which life is described as “the activity of a biosphere,” where a biosphere is a “highly ordered system of matter and energy characterised by complex cycles.” The originators of this theory, Feinberg and Shapiro, hypothesise that the minimum requirement for life is simply an entropy gradient (change in amount of disorder over time).

If we take Feinberg and Shapiro’s theory to be true, we can imagine that life might evolve in exotic places, such as the atmospheres of giant stars or on the surface of neutron stars. Of course, the kind of life that could survive in such extreme environments would be light years from our current notion of life – perhaps so much so that we might be unable to recognise it. In a similar vein, the human mind is unable to comprehend shapes in four dimensions, so it is entirely possible that bizarre forms of life occupy higher dimensions inaccessible to us. For example, in Greg Egan’s Diaspora, giant growing carpets composed of carbohydrate building blocks in shapes like Wang tiles appear one-dimensional but when Fourier-transformed, reveal an incredible “thousand-dimensional frequency space” rich with life. It’s all pretty mind-trippy stuff.

Tessellating Wang tiles. Image by Claudio Rocchini (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Tessellating Wang tiles. Image by Claudio Rocchini (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Returning a bit closer to home: maybe there are multiple biosystems on Earth that remain hidden from us, so-called “shadow biospheres.” Massive portions of the Earth remain unexplored – like deep within the soil – which represent potential locations for life founded on alternative biochemistry or physical processes. For example, life might be based on silicon instead of carbon, or differing chirality. Perhaps even life based on weak forces like Brownian motion might exist. Another interesting point to consider is whether life can only exist in baryonic form – that is, in the form of matter we can detect. Some cosmologists predict that baryonic matter only comprises 4.6% of the total mass density of the universe – the remainder consists of dark matter and dark energy. Maybe some form of life extends into these dark realms of the universe.

Overall, while it may be especially important to humanity to find extra-terrestrial life similar to us, I contend that any discovery of life beyond our own planet would be equally as extraordinary, and potentially more mind-blowing and enriching. Therefore I believe we need to let go of our obsession with the “habitable zone,” and think more outside the box when it comes to the notion of life.