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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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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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technology
Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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iStock
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science
There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
iStock
iStock

Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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