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Dieter Braun

The Parasite and the Parrot: A Love Story

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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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Ranil Nanayakkara, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
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5 Terrifyingly Huge Spiders
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Poecilotheria rajaei
Ranil Nanayakkara, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Earlier this week, an Australian couple made the news when they were terrorized by a huge huntsman spider—which they named Aragog—that prevented them from BBQing. (They tried to use their cat to scare the spider away. It didn't work.) Aragog was about the size of a grown man's hand, and it's not the only giant spider out there. The massive spiders below can’t be dispatched by a shoe or a rolled-up newspaper. They're sure to give you nightmares—even if you're not an arachnophobe.

1. POECILOTHERIA RAJAEI

This species of tarantula, discovered in Northern Sri Lanka in 2013, has a leg span of 8 inches. That's roughly the size of your face! It’s part of an arboreal group called tiger spiders, which are indigenous to India and Sri Lanka. A dead male specimen of P. rajaei—which is distinguished from other tiger spiders by the markings on its legs and abdomen—was first presented to scientists in October 2009 by a local villager; a survey of the area revealed enough females and juveniles that scientists are confident they've found a new species. “They are quite rare,” Ranil Nanayakkara, co-founder of Sri Lanka’s Biodiversity Education and Research, told WIRED. “They prefer well-established old trees, but due to deforestation the number have dwindled and due to lack of suitable habitat they enter old buildings.” P. rajaei was named after a police officer who helped scientists navigate the area where it was found.

2. THERAPHOSA BLONDI

A Goliath bird-eating spider.
universoaracnido, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Though Theraphosa blondi is called the Goliath Bird-eating spider, it doesn’t actually eat birds. Reportedly, it got its name when an explorer saw it eating a hummingbird, but like other tarantulas, its diet consists mainly of insects, frogs, and rodents. But we’ll forgive you if you’re not comforted by that fact. After all, this spider can have a leg span nearly a foot across—the size of a dinner plate—and weigh up to 6 ounces, making it the largest spider in the world by mass. Its fangs, up to an inch long, can break human skin. (Though venomous, its poison won't bring down a human.) Native to South America, the spider makes noise by rubbing the bristles on its legs together; the sound can be heard up to 15 feet away.

3. HETEROPODA MAXIMA

A Heteropoda maxima spider
Petra & Wilifried, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Yet another reason to avoid dark caverns: Discovered in a cave in Laos in 2011, the Giant Huntsman spider has a leg span of 12 inches. It’s just one of over 1000 species of Huntsman spider. These speedy arachnids can chase down their prey with ease and have legs that extend forward, like a crab’s.

4. GOLDEN SILK ORB-WEAVER

These arachnids, of the genus Nephila, have a fearsome relative: the largest fossilized spider ever found is an ancestor. Females of this family of spiders, which are found around the world, can have leg spans up to 6 inches (the males are smaller). Though these Orb-Weavers typically eat large insects, in Australia, some of these spiders have been snapped eating snakes and birds that got caught in their strong, 5-foot-diameter webs.    

5. PHONEUTRIA NIGRIVENTER

Sure, Phoneutria nigriventer's nearly 6-inch leg span is scary—but there's something else about this spider that makes it even more terrifying: its venom, a neurotoxin that can be fatal to humans. In fact, along with P. fera, this spider is the most toxic on Earth (thankfully, a good antivenom exists). Native to Central and South America, P. nigriventer is also called the Brazilian Wandering Spider, for its tendency to roam the forest at night, and the banana spider, both because it hides in banana plants during the day and sometimes stows away in shipments of the fruit. When threatened, the spider lifts its front two pairs of legs and sways side to side, as you can see in the video above.

This story originally appeared in 2013.

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KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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20 of the Animal Kingdom's Most Surprising Friendships
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KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

These interspecies friendships prove that anybody can get along if they really put their minds to it.

1. PEANUT THE RAT AND RANJ THE CAT

When Maggie Szpot adopted two rats, she was worried about how Ranj, the stray cat she brought home in 2008, would react. But she didn't need to worry about Ranj hunting Peanut and Mocha—in fact, Peanut became enamored with the cat, following him around, cuddling with him, licking his face, and eating food out of his bowl alongside him. The two remained besties until Peanut died in 2010.

2. JOEJOE THE CAPYBARA AND HIS MANY FRIENDS

Capybaras are known for being very, very chill around other animals. They're regularly spotted hanging out happily with birds perched on their backs, puppies snuggled next to them, and monkeys climbing on top of them. (There's a whole Tumblr devoted to these capybara friendships.) JoeJoe the Capybara, perhaps social media's most famous capybara, is regularly seen cuddling with puppies, swimming with ducklings, and rolling around with the baby chicks he shares a home with in Arizona.

3. JUNIPER THE FOX AND MOOSE THE DOG

Juniper is a rescued fox who made fast friends with Moose, the Australian Shepherd mix with whom she shares a home. The two sleep together, eat together, and groom each other. Their owner, Jessika, often comes into a room to find Juniper sitting on top of Moose's head as the dog patiently allows himself to be used as a couch.

4. STRONG IMPACT THE RACEHORSE AND CHARLIE THE PIG

A lot of high-strung racehorses have companion animals that keep them calm. Strong Impact, a thoroughbred that raced for eight years, found a loyal companion in Charlie, a pig. The pig chose Strong Impact out of all the other horses in the barn, going stall to stall until he found an equine companion with whom he could cohabitate. According to a New York Times story on their friendship, they act like an old married couple and hate to be separated. (Strong Impact retired from racing in 2015 and is now part of an adoption program for retired racehorses.)

5. ANTHONY THE LION AND RILEY THE COYOTE

Anthony the lion and Riley the coyote met when both were one month old, recently rescued by Keepers of the Wild, a sanctuary for rescued exotic animals in Arizona. They immediately took a liking to each other, and their love was captured in a PBS Nature episode called "Animal Odd Couples" playing, grooming each other, and standing watch over each other during naptime. (Their segment starts at about 9:45.) Riley accompanied Anthony when he left the sanctuary for surgeries for a birth defect because the animals experienced such intense separation anxiety that one wouldn't eat without the other present. Sadly, Anthony passed away several years ago, and Riley now lives with another coyote at the sanctuary, Dominic.

6. SIMON COW-ELL AND LEONARDO THE TORTOISE

Simon the cow arrived at the WFFT Wildlife Rescue Center in Thailand in February 2016 after losing part of his hind leg. He was put in a temporary space in a field while he recovered from his injury, and was eventually supposed to join two other cows at the rescue in another enclosure. Instead, he formed an intense bond with the field's other resident, a giant tortoise named Leonardo that had been rescued when a Bangkok zoo closed in 2013. Simon nuzzles Leonardo, rests his head on his shell, and follows him around everywhere. They now live together permanently.

7. J'AIME THE RHINO AND JOEY THE LAMB

When J'aime came to the Rhino Orphanage in South Africa in March 2017, she was too young and small to be housed with her fellow rhinos. A few months later, though, she found a friend in Joey, a lamb who had been rejected by his mother and was brought to the sanctuary to be hand-raised. Joey was just a few days old at the time of their introduction, and he and J'aime quickly became best buds. They go for daily walks together and eat out of the same trough. Since May, they've also had another orphan in their little herd, a lamb named Penny.

8. LEO THE LION, BALOO THE BEAR, AND SHERE KHAN THE TIGER

When police made a drug raid on an Atlanta home 16 years ago, they made quite a discovery in the basement: one lion cub, one bear cub, and one tiger cub, which the drug dealer had been keeping as pets. The animals were in bad shape, but had formed a special bond. The trio was moved to the Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary in Georgia, where they were nursed back to health. Baloo's injuries were the most serious; he had to undergo surgery to remove a harness that was so tight his flesh had begun to grow around it. "During Baloo's surgery was the only time the three brothers have ever been separated from one another, and Shere Khan and Leo became extremely agitated because of it, pacing and vocalizing for the lost member of their family of three to return," the sanctuary's website says. Baloo made a full recovery and the trio remained inseparable until 2016, when Leo passed away from liver disease. Baloo and Shere Khan continue to romp around their three-acre sanctuary.

9. CLEO THE CAT AND FORBI THE OWL

Brazilian biologist André Costa took in Forbi as a baby, and the owl became immediate friends with Cleo, Costa's cat (you can see a photo of little Forbi just hanging out on Cleo's side here). And they're still best buds!

10. BEA THE GIRAFFE AND WILMA THE OSTRICH

Both Bea and Wilma were born and raised in the 65-acre Serengeti Plain exhibit at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida. Assistant curator Jason Green told People that the duo "seem to enjoy spending time together. Bea likes to use her tongue to explore her surroundings, and Wilma isn't fazed by those very close encounters."

11. THEMBA THE ELEPHANT AND ALBERT THE SHEEP

Themba became an orphan at 6 months old when his mother died after falling down a cliff. The baby elephant was rescued by a team at Shamwari Rehabilitation Centre in South Africa, who put him in an enclosure with a sheep named Albert. "All hell broke loose," filmmaker Lyndal Davies told the Daily Mail in 2008. "Themba made a dash for the sheep and chased him around his watering hole." By the next morning, though, "Albert was clearly bored and started venturing out into the main enclosure. Themba wouldn't leave Albert's side and the two were seen exploring their enclosure together, with Themba's trunk resting on Albert's back. Ever since that moment Themba and Albert have been inseparable." According to wildlife director Johan Joubert, "Albert copies everything Themba does. In fact, they have almost the exact same diet. Albert is the first sheep I have ever seen eat a thorny acacia bush." You can watch a documentary about the pair above. Sadly, while the team at the center hoped to eventually introduce Themba back into the wild, the elephant died suddenly in 2010.

12. MUBI THE MONKEY AND IAIN AND DAISEY THE JACK RUSSELL PUPPIES

Mubi, an endangered drill monkey, was born at the Port Lympne Animal Park near Canterbury, Kent, but she was quickly rejected by her mother. So zookeeper Simon Jeffrey decided to hand-rear her. "During the day I take her to work and the team look after her at the enclosure where she can see her parents," he told the Daily Mail. "When I’ve finished working in the reserve, she comes home with me." There, she spends her time playing with two Jack Russell puppies, Iain and Daisey.

13. SAHARA THE CHEETAH AND ALEXA THE DOG

Cathryn Hilker, founder of the Cincinnati Zoo's Cat Ambassador Program, adopted the cheetah and the Anatolian Shepherd puppy when they were both two months old and raised them together. "They literally moved into my house and bonded with my rugs, my furniture, and each other," Hilker told Good Morning America. For a number of years, the pair toured schools in America raising awareness for the precarious position of the wild cheetah population. They even lived together at the zoo until 2010, when Alexa retired and went to live with a trainer.

14. CASSIE THE KITTEN AND MOSES THE CROW

In 1999, a tiny stray kitten appeared in Wally and Ann Collito's yard in North Attleboro, Massachusetts. The Collitos began feeding the kitten, but they weren’t the only ones: A crow also helped take care of the kitty, feeding her worms and bugs and protecting her from other animals. Eventually, the Collitos were able to coax Cassie inside, but the cat's incredible friendship with the crow didn't end there. The crow—whom they had named Moses—would peck at the door for Cassie every morning, and they'd spend the day hanging around together. The Collitos shot video and took photos of the two canoodling because they knew no one would believe them otherwise. This routine lasted for five years, until Moses stopped showing up, presumably because he had died.

15. OWEN THE HIPPO AND MZEE THE TORTOISE

When the waves of the devastating 2004 tsunami struck the coast of Kenya, a baby hippo was separated from his herd and became stranded on a coral reef. The next day, the hippo was rescued by the residents of the village of Malindi with fishing nets and taken to Haller Park Sanctuary, where the 660-pound animal—now named Owen—cozied up to a 130-year-old Aldabra tortoise named Mzee (maybe because the tortoise’s shape and color resembled an adult hippo). At first, the tortoise wasn't interested in this friendship, but eventually, they became inseparable, eating, wallowing in a pond, and even sleeping together. They lived in the same enclosure until 2007, when Mzee was removed from the enclosure because of safety concerns; Owen has since bonded with a female hippo named Cleo.

16. SABRE THE MINIHORSE AND ARROW THE GREAT DANE

Enjoy this video of Sabre, an 11-year-old miniature horse, hanging out with his friend Arrow, a 2.5-year-old Harlequin Great Dane, on a twin mattress.

17. JET THE DOLPHIN AND MIRI THE SEA LION

Though these two animals would normally be fierce competitors in the wild, at the Pet Porpoise Pool Marine Park in Coffs Harbour, Australia, they're the best of friends. Jet and Miri met as babies, and according to pool specialist Amy Carter, "They struck up a friendship really early on as they are the youngest. If Jet sees Miri going past he sticks his head out of the pool to say 'hi' and they make noises to each other."

18. PIPPIN THE DEER AND KATE THE GREAT DANE

In 2008, Isobel Springett rescued a fawn that had been abandoned by its mother in her yard, placing the tiny animal in the dog bed with her Great Dane, Kate. "She tucked her head under the dog's elbow," Springett told People. "Her whole demeanor changed. I knew she was a good dog, but I didn't expect her to mother the fawn." Though the deer eventually returned to the wild, she still visits, now with her own fawns. And though her babies won't get close, Pippin still comes in for a nose rub, which Kate returns. "There's a strong connection," Springett says, "but they have no idea it's a weird one."

19. TARRA THE ELEPHANT AND BELLA THE DOG

Get your tissues out for this one: For eight years, Tarra was best buds with Bella, a mutt who had wandered onto the grounds of Tennessee's Elephant Sanctuary. They had such a strong bond that Bella would let the elephant stroke her on her stomach with her foot, and when Bella had a spinal injury that confined her to the sanctuary office, Tarra "just stood outside the balcony—just stood there and waited," sanctuary co-founder Carol Buckley told CBS. "She was concerned about her friend. ... Bella knows she's not an elephant. Tarra knows she's not a dog. But that's not a problem for them."

But in 2011, Bella was found dead, probably of a coyote attack. "When I looked around and saw there was no signs of an attack here. No blood, no tuffs of hair, nothing," director of elephant husbandry, Steve Smith, told CBS. "And Tarra, on the underside of her trunk, had blood—as if she picked up the body. Tarra moved her."

20. ANONYMOUS CAT AND FOX

Fishermen in Lake Van, Turkey, spotted this wild cat and a fox playing, snuggling, and sharing fish together—and they've been at it for more than a year!

This story originally ran in 2014.

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