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Dogs sniff out kiwi to aid clever conservation

August 1, 2012

Photo: Simon Woolf

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While felines have been hitting the headlines, Zealandia staff recently welcomed two canines to the sanctuary – to sniff out the genetically-challenged little spotted kiwi for Victoria University PhD researcher Helen Taylor.

Percy and Breeze may belong to a species known as one of the biggest killers of kiwi, but dog handlers James Fraser and Natasha Coad have trained these two English setters to sniff out kiwi, whio, pāteke, snipe and kākāpō to aid their conservation. Fraser and Coad run their own business “With a Nose for Conservation” from Akaroa, contracting to DOC and other organisations. This time the team were employed to locate five little spotted kiwi males who had dropped their transmitters, plus extras if possible for Taylor’s study of the Zealandia and Long Island populations.

“We actually found 30 birds, in just four days, and 10 of those were littlies, which is great to see. Every bird we found was in good condition – which means they’re all finding enough food and aren’t having to fight too much over territory” said Fraser.

Taylor takes genetic samples from all the birds found, which she can use to show the parentage and relationships between them. With kiwi, the males sit on the egg, rather than the female and over the upcoming breeding season Taylor aims to track at least 24 males at Zealandia, all fitted with special transmitters to help her monitor their breeding success.

With a clever piece of software and some local volunteer help Taylor can detect which males are incubating eggs without having to directly check the birds each week.

“A tiny mercury switch in the transmitter translates the movement of the bird into information; that information is sent out as a pattern of beeps we can pick up with a receiver. It still means someone has to be there to listen in but we don’t have to use cameras or enter the nest each week” said Taylor.

Little spotted kiwi are the smallest and second rarest species of kiwi (around 1700 alive today) but thanks to conservation efforts on 7 offshore Islands plus Zealandia’s ‘mainland Island’  they are the least threatened, with a conservation status of ‘Recovering’. However, all little spotted kiwi alive today stem from just five birds thought to have been transferred to Kapiti Island almost 100 years ago. It is the effects of this ‘genetic bottleneck’ that Taylor’s research seeks to expose.

Despite the limited gene pool, Zealandia Conservation Manager Raewyn Empson has seen an impressive growth rate of kiwi at the sanctuary.
“We transferred 40 little spots here from Kapiti during 2000 and 2001 and the latest estimate is around 120 birds so they have done incredibly well and we’re really pleased with their success. It’s great to receive extra information on our birds from Helen’s research and it shows how vital our links with Victoria University are. We both benefit from working together – plus it’s a pretty convenient location!”

Taylor hopes her findings will help lay out a more certain future for little spotted kiwi.
“The main purpose of my PhD is to try and inform the conservation management strategy for these birds. Hopefully, the results we generate will be useful for planning future translocations and sanctuary areas for little spots. It’s really time and labour intensive and I couldn’t do it without my volunteers so it’s lucky that there’s such a great group of them at Zealandia who are willing to help out. I’ve been bowled over by people’s enthusiasm and dedication to this project.”

Mystery of the founding five

Hugh Robertson heads up the Kiwi Recovery Programme for DOC and is a recognised kiwi expert but even he can’t be sure about the exact ‘bottleneck’ size little spotted kiwi went through or who moved them to Kapiti Island:
“The record states five ‘kiwi’ were introduced to Kapiti Island from Jackson Bay on 12 October 1912 (along with 3 kakapo) and we think these were the founders of the Kapiti population.”

“(Early conservationist) Richard Henry was ranger on Kapiti from 1908, but I don’t know if he was still there in 1912. It seems likely that he would have been involved in some way, but again no proof exists that I am aware of.”

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“It’s been really interesting to be able to watch the behaviour of these birds up close, including the interactions between pairs and the interest that female birds show in the nests.  Other than laying the eggs, the role of female LSK in reproduction is unclear, as it’s only the male who incubates the egg, but when we stake out nests at night to catch chicks for the study, the female will often come around to check out what’s happening, sometime even grunting to the male who’s still in the nest.  It may be that there’s a stronger family dynamic at play than previously supposed.” – Helen Taylor

Around four little spotted kiwi were found on D’Urville Island, two of which survive on Long Island today but do not appear to have bred successfully. Victoria University research indicates the entire Long Island LSK population stems from just two Kapiti birds.
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