Most people who visit New Zealand never see a kiwi in the wild. You might catch a glimpse of one in a dimly lit indoor cage, but in the wild the country’s national bird is a rare sight. Just to clarify, I’m talking about the awkward looking bird, not the odd looking fruit. New Zealand has five species of kiwi birds, native inhabitants of the “land of the long white cloud”. Thanks to introduced predators and hunting, four are on the REDD list. On the other hand, the little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii) has been a conservation success story. That is, until now.
Even though the little spotted kiwi is extremely rare very rare, it’s the only kiwi bird without “endangered” status. Its success story is an interesting one. Around a century ago, things were looking decidedly not good for the little spotted kiwi. It had disappeared from New Zealand’s north island altogether, and in 1912, conservationists took five remaining birds from the Jackson Bay on the South Island and moved them to a small island 5 kilometers off the North Island’s coast called Kapiti. Whether or not a native population already inhabited the island is still up for debate today, but the birds were spotted there in 1929, well after relocation.
By the 1980s, the original south island population was gone, but the birds on Kapiti were actually doing pretty well. Meanwhile, another population on D’Urville island wasn’t doing so great. Conservationists did the same thing again: moving the last remaining male and female birds on D’Urville to nearby Long Island, along with three birds from Kapiti. Around the same time, individuals from Kapiti and founded populations on some of New Zealand’s other coastal isles.
Taking the last individuals from a species in danger of becoming extinct and focusing all of the energy on protecting them — either in a small area of their native range in the wild or in captivity — is a go-to worst-case scenario tactic in conservation. It worked for cheetahs, the mexican wolf, and another of New Zealand’s avian residents, the Takahe. So, the Kapiti island population flourished, exceeding 1600 individuals today. Based on numbers alone, spotted kiwis are doing great.
But, recent study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B gives conservationists pause. Results suggests that these populations have inbred themselves into a genetic bottleneck — when a population drops, its genetic variation gets slashed. Basically, they lack genetic variety. A new disease could swoop in and easily wipe them out; the same goes for other challenges like sudden changes in climate (something that’s not out of the realm of possibility in the next million years).
“Yes, we have eight populations, and yes, they are all growing in size in terms of number of birds,” Kristina Ramstad, a co-author and a biologist at Victoria University in Wellington, NZ, told Science. “But they are all incredibly low in genetic diversity. … If the right disease comes along, it could wipe all of them out.” Science‘s Traci Watson outlines another species — the bengali tiger — that suffers a similar problem: a companion study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that the tigers retain only 7% of their ancestors’ genetic variation.
As for the kiwi study, Ramstad and her colleagues compared genetic data at 15 spots in the species’s genome from populations on Kapiti to those on Red Mercury, Tiritiri Matangi, and Long Island. All four populations were almost genetically identical and had telltale signs of genetic bottlenecks in recent years. Mysteriously, Kapiti birds are losing some measure of genetic diversity each year. The other groups are too. In fact, little spotted kiwis have the lowest diversity of all kiwi species. On Long Island, a single mating pair from Kapiti founded the population that persists today, and that the birds from D’Urville haven’t contributed at all to the overall genetic diversity of the species. For whatever reason, they never mated and disappeared.
“We don’t know why [the D’Urville birds didn’t breed],” Ramstad told Scientific American. “We don’t know how long little spotted kiwi live and we don’t know what’s their oldest age of reproduction. It’s still a bit of a guess, they keep outliving the scientists following them. So the birds [from D’Urville Island], could have been too old, or one of them could have been infertile. It could simply be a case that they didn’t fancy each other.”
So, what’s the takeaway message here: should conservations be doing something differently? or is the game just stacked against them? Keeping up connections between surviving populations — so that they mate and pop out genetically diverse kids — seems to be as important as making sure populations in protected areas have the best shot at survival. The sentiment seems to be that things are just a heck of a lot more complicated than originally thought. And, that’s no reason to throw in the towel. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation plans to relocate Kapiti birds (which have the most genetic diversity of the bunch) to smaller islands to boost their DNA. “Don’t keep all of your kiwis on one island” remains the best tactic at the moment.