Dieter Braun
Dieter Braun

The Parasite and the Parrot: A Love Story

Dieter Braun
Dieter Braun

Two bizarre New Zealand species are on the brink of extinction. Can they save each other?

When it comes to parasites, few are as diabolically elegant as the Hades flower. The rootless, leafless plant lurks beneath the thick undergrowth of New Zealand forests, attaching itself to trees and pilfering nutrients. As it drains its host, the Hades leaves beautiful scars—fluted burls that remain in the wood. It’s these so-called flowers that give the plant its nickname, the wood rose.

Collectors used to bag the once ubiquitous bark roses, varnishing them for home decoration. But environmental threats such as deforestation and invasive species have landed the Hades flower on the endangered-species list. By the end of the last decade, the plant’s span had shrunk to four percent of its original range. Scientists guessed that just a few thousand plants remained, but they couldn’t be sure. And while the flowers do sprout shoots and bloom for two months a year, possums and pigs make such quick snacks of the buds that the underground Hades plant is impossible to track.

Unsure of how many Hades flowers are left, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has been desperate to protect the species. As part of a recovery plan in the 1990s, it considered transplanting populations of the plant but couldn’t find an area with enough bats or other creatures to pollinate it. Of course, protecting the Hades flower isn’t the only conservation issue on the island.

New Zealand is a hotbed of endangered species. Because the archipelago’s flora and fauna were isolated for so much of human history, its native species were ill equipped to protect themselves when settlers arrived. In the last few years, conservationists have been stumped about how to save the Hades flower. Then, in a lucky coincidence, they hit upon a possible solution. What if they recruited another endangered species—the hapless kakapo bird—to help?

The kakapo is unquestionably cute—the bird looks like a parakeet crossed with an owl crossed with a Muppet—but it’s impossible to underscore how useless it is. Also, it has some of the world’s worst evolutionary luck. Kakapos can’t fly, so they build their nests on the ground. Instead of hiding their homes, they settle down in big open spaces. They’re nocturnal, feeling their way through forests with the whiskerlike feathers on their faces. Perhaps most self-defeating, kakapos emit a strong musky scent that’s impossible to ignore. And it’s this combination—their preference for slow nighttime strolls combined with the body odor of dinner—that made the bird easy pickings for humans, dogs, cats, and every other predator. It was once one of the country’s most prevalent birds; today there are only 124 kakapos left.

For scientists who study endangered species, one of the major challenges is figuring out how historical animal populations behaved in long-gone ecosystems. How did they interact with one another? Who ate what? Which species were enemies and which were friends? It’s akin to watching a movie with the major plot points edited out. That’s where fossilized feces can come in handy. Rock-hard mineralized animal droppings—known as coprolite—function as thousand-year-old clues to animal diet, behavior, and relationships and are often key to reconstructing these ecological “deleted scenes.”

In 2010, New Zealand paleoecologist Jamie Wood and a team of researchers trekked to Honeycomb Hill Caves in the northwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island to collect coprolite as part of a project to reconstruct the diets of extinct birds. Among the bits of organic matter, Wood and his fellow researchers noticed something distinctive: round grains of pollen, each full of large holes with raised borders, almost like the suckers on an octopus’s tentacles. The moment Wood peered at them under the microscope, he knew he was looking at a Hades flower.

“I knew the plant didn’t occur on the South Island anymore,” he says. “But it wasn’t until we started to research the ecology that we worked out the full significance of the finding.” Radiocarbon dating revealed that the coprolite was 900 years old. Its source? A kakapo.

Scientists hadn’t known that the parrot and the plant were acquainted. But as he learned about the Hades flower’s life cycle and the problems it faced, Wood realized that the pollen in the coprolite hinted at an untold story. Before they were each driven out of their shared territory by human settlement and encroaching predators, kakapos fed on the Hades flower and carried its pollen on their whiskery feathers, helping the plant reproduce.

If the two species were reunited, would the parrots resume their ancient role and help the plants pollinate? The chance to find out came when the Department of Conservation’s Kakapo Recovery relocated eight kakapos to one of the last remaining refuges of the Hades flower, Little Barrier Island off the coast of North Island. In the early morning hours one day in April 2012, wranglers captured the birds by hand and placed them in pet carriers. The crates were packed with damp towels, along with apples and carrots for the kakapos to snack on. When the birds arrived a day later, it marked the first time in years that the two strange species shared a home.

Setting the kakapos loose on the island, outside of heavy human handling, is an important step in the parrot’s repopulation process. “We need to see if they can survive and flourish without outside help,” conservation minister Kate Wilkinson told a New Zealand newspaper. “This initiative could play a major role in securing the long-term survival of the species.”

As for the bird’s role in helping the Hades flower spread, it’s still too early to tell whether the endangered species matchmaking will work. So far, there’s little evidence that the kakapos have taken notice of the flowers. But scientists are optimistic, holding out hope that somewhere in the dark forest—as these strange little birds feel their way toward the pale flowers barely poking out of the ground—old ties still bind.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here or check out our iPad edition.

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IKEA
IKEA Is Recalling Its New Dog Water Fountain Due to Suffocation Risk
IKEA
IKEA

In late 2017, IKEA released LURVIG, its first-ever line for pets, a collection that included beds, leashes, food bowls, and other staple products for dogs and cats. Unfortunately, one of those products is now being recalled over safety issues, according to Fast Company. If you own the LURVIG water dispenser, you should take it away from your pet immediately.

The automatic water fountain poses a suffocation hazard, the company announced in a recent statement. The retailer has received two reports of pets dying after getting their head stuck in it.

A water fountain for pets sits next to a bowl full of dog food.
IKEA

The $8 water dispenser debuted in U.S. stores in October 2017 with the rest of its LURVIG line. Awkwardly enough, the product description included assurances of the product’s safety standards. It explained that “the LURVIG range was developed with the assistance of trained veterinarian Dr. Barbara Schäfer, who also works with product risk assessment at IKEA,” and went on to say that “the first thing to consider was safety: ‘Dogs will definitely chew on their toys and bring in dirt from their daily walks. Cats will definitely scratch on most surfaces and are sensitive to smell and texture. So safe, durable materials are very important.’”

It seems that smaller dogs are able to get their faces stuck in the dome-shaped plastic reservoir, which only appears to have one hole in it, at the bottom. As a result, dogs can suffocate if they can’t get out of it.

The product has been removed from IKEA’s website, and the retailer recommends that anyone who bought it stop using it and return it to the nearest IKEA store for a refund.

[h/t Fast Company]

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Alamy
10 Facts About the Portuguese Man O' War
Alamy
Alamy

Something a lot scarier than any Jersey Devil has been washing up on beaches in the Garden State lately: This month, the dangerous Portuguese Man O’ War—which has a potentially deadly sting—has been sighted in Cape May and Wildwood, New Jersey, which could lead to problems for beachgoers. Read on to learn more about these unusual creatures.

1. IT'S NOT A JELLYFISH.

The Portuguese Man o’ War may look like a bloated jellyfish, but it’s actually a siphonophore—a bizarre group of animals that consist of colonies made up of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of genetically-identical individual creatures. A siphonophore starts out as a fertilized egg. But as it develops, it starts "budding" into distinct structures and organisms. These tiny organisms—called polyps or zooids—can’t survive on their own, so they merge together into a tentacled mass. They must cooperate as one in order to do things like travel and catch food.

Though the zooids within a Man O’ War are basically clones, they come in different shapes and serve different purposes [PDF]. Dactylozooids are long hunting tentacles built to ensnare prey; gastrozooids are smaller tentacles which digest the food; and gonozooids are dangling entities whose job is to facilitate reproduction. Every Man O’ War also has a pneumatophore, or “float”—an overgrown, bag-like polyp which acts as a giant gas bladder and sits at the top of the colony. Capable of expanding or contracting at will, it provides the Man O’ War with some buoyancy control. An expanded float also enables the colony to harness winds to move around.

2. A CLOSE RELATIVE IS THE INDO-PACIFIC “BLUEBOTTLE.”

A view of a bluebottle under water.
iStock

When we say “Portuguese Man O’ War,” we’re talking about Physalia physalis, the bizarre siphonophore that’s scaring New Jerseyans right now. Also known as the Atlantic Portuguese Man O’ War, it can be found in warmer parts of the Pacific, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and of course, the Atlantic.

Another kind of siphonophore which regularly stings beachgoers is the so-called bluebottle, Physalia utriculus. It’s sometimes called the Indo-Pacific “Portuguese” Man O’ War and is restricted to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It’s smaller than the Atlantic species and unlike its bigger counterpart—which has multiple hunting tentacles—it hunts with a single, elongated tentacle.

3. THE NAME “PORTUGUESE MAN O’ WAR” IS PROBABLY A NAVAL REFERENCE.

In the age of sailing, many European navies used tall warships loaded with cannons and propelled by three masts. British sailors took to calling this kind of vessel a “Man of War.”

What does that have to do with Physalia physalias? These colonies spend a lot of time floating at the water’s surface, and when the gas bladder is expanded, it looks—and acts—a bit like a sailboat, hence the “Man O’ War.” As for the Portuguese part, 19th century scientists proposed that sailors encountered it near the Portuguese island of Madeira, while modern etymologists tend to think that it looked like the Portuguese version of the ship.

Or at least that’s one explanation for the creature’s peculiar name. It’s also been suggested that Renaissance-era sailors thought the pneumatophores resembled the helmets worn by Portugal’s soldiers during the 16th century.

4. MAN O’ WAR TENTACLES CAN BE UP TO 165 FEET LONG.

Two Portuguese Man o' War washed up on the beach with their tentacles stretched out.
iStock

At least, that’s the maximum length for the dactylozooids—which are normally around 30 feet long and use venom-spewing cells to deliver painful, neurotoxic stings. When a tentacle is detached from the rest of the colony, it might wash ashore somewhere or drift around for days on end until it decomposes. Be warned: Even a severed tentacle can sting you.

5. ON RARE OCCASIONS, STINGS CAN BE FATAL TO HUMANS.

The odds of being killed by a Portuguese Man O’ War are slim. But just because deaths are rare doesn't mean you should touch one: On February 11, 2018, 204 people in Hollywood, Florida were treated for stings, which can lead to red welts on the skin, muscle cramps, elevated heart rates, and vomiting.

Still, the creatures can kill: One unlucky victim suffered a full cardiovascular collapse and died after getting too close to a Man O’ War in eastern Florida back in 1987. More recently, a woman swimming off Sardinia was stung by one and died of what was believed to be anaphylactic shock.

6. SOME FISH LIVE IN THEM.

Given that tiny fish make up about 70 to 90 percent of the Man O’ War’s diet (it also eats shrimp and other crustaceans), Nomeus gronovii, a.k.a. the Portuguese Man O’ War Fish, is playing a dangerous game: It lives among the siphonophore's tentacles even though it's not immune to its stings, swimming nimbly between the stingers. Young fish eat planktons which wander under their hosts and, as they get older, will sometimes steal the Man O’ War’s prey—or nibble on its tentacles.

7. SEA SLUGS LIKE TO STEAL THEIR TOXINS.

The Man O’ War has a long list of enemies. Loggerhead sea turtles and the bizarre-looking ocean sunfish are thick-skinned enough to eat them. There are also “blue dragon” sea slugs, which not only devour the Man O’ War but actively harvest and appropriate its toxins. After storing Man O’ War stinging cells in their own skins, the blue dragons can use it as a predator deterrent.

8. MAN O’ WAR COME IN PRETTY COLORS.

A pink-tinted Portuguese Man O' War with blue tentacles in the surf at a beach.
iStock

Although it’s translucent, the float is usually tinted with blue, pink, and/or purple hues. Beaches along the American Gulf Coast raise purple flags in order to let visitors know when groups of Man O’ War (or other potentially deadly sea creatures) are at large.

9. EVERY COLONY HAS A SPECIFIC SEX.

The Man O' War's gonozooids have sacs that house ovaries or testes—so each colony can therefore be considered “male” or “female.” Though marine biologists aren’t completely sure how the Man O’ War procreates, one theory is that the gonozooids release eggs and sperm into the open ocean, which become fertilized when they cross paths with floating eggs or sperm from other Man O’ War colonies. This “broadcast spawning” method of reproduction is also used by many species of coral, fan worms, sea anemone, and jellyfish.

10. LOOK OUT FOR MAN O’ WAR LEGIONS.

The Man O’ War isn't always seen in isolation. Legions consisting of over 1000 colonies have been observed floating around together. Because they drift along on (somewhat) predictable winds and ocean currents, it’s possible to anticipate where and when a lot of the creatures will show up. For example, the Gulf Coast’s Man O’ War season arrives in the winter months.

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