Monday, April 16, 2012

The Kakapo: A Case Study of a Flightless Bird

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), it is an endangered parrot which is native to the New Zealand area. It is officially the largest parrot in the world. To date, approximately 126 Kakapo are known to exist and most of them have names. Due to its endangered status, the measurement of “polymorphic microsatellite loci” are currently being used to determine relatedness structure among the Kakapo and prioritize future mating (Moorhouse 664). The reason for this is that maintaining genetic diversity among the small Kakapo population is necessary for the future survival of the species.

*This is a comparison of the Kakapo’s size relative to a human head. Courtesy of BBC

In 2009, the Kakapo was used in research regarding a link between the brain size of flightless birds and their volant (or flight-capable) counterparts (Olson 319) Like many of the birds found in New Zealand, the Kakapo is larger than most birds and no longer able to use its wings for flight. The inability of the Kakapo to fly like some of its parrot counterparts is due to the unique environmental conditions found in the New Zealand area. For much of New Zealand’s history, there has been an absence of natural predators to prey on the Kakapo. It was not until European colonization that the Kakapo was under new threats of predation that. As a result, the population has drastically dropped. The Kakapos inability to fly has made them extremely vulnerable to all newly introduced predators in the area. Research comparing the Kakapo to its volant counterparts concluded that there is no link between brain size and morphological differences in flight. It goes to show that although the Kakapo does not have to navigate the skies, they still need to use their brains. They possibly need to use their brains even more given the need of the Kakapo to find new ways of avoiding predators.

*Here is a funny link relating to the mating habits of the Kakapo parrot:

Olson Storrs L., et al. "A Comparative Test Of The Correlated Evolution Of Flightlessness And Relative Brain Size In Birds." Journal Of Zoology 263.3 (2004): 317-327. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Apr. 2012 

Moorhouse, Ron, et al. “Thirty Polymorphic Microsatellite Loci From the Critically Endangered Kakapo (stringops Habroptilus.”Molecular Ecology Resources 9.2 (2009): 664-666. Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.


  1. Could it be that the brain, in maintaining its size, rewired itself to help the bird become more shrewd to survive on the ground? I've read about the plasticity of the brain in humans, and I wondered if it applied to birds. Afterall, a flightless bird doesn't need to keep those neural pathways to the wing muscles, etc., so might as well use them for something else. I was thinking the that if there is a lack of shrinkage of the brain in the fossils before the flightlessness set it compared to now, this can be proved. I've also heard that birds' brains are actually adequate to quite large for their body size, thus undermining the phrase "bird brain." Good to know there is some truth to what I've heard.

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