Microbiology of endangered New Zealand species
Currently researched by Annie West & Areezah Ali
Due to millions of years of geographic isolation and an absence of natural mammalian predators, New Zealand evolved an unusual fauna and flora, once referred to as “a completely different experiment in evolution from the rest of the world”. These weird and wonderful creatures included the giant moa (a massive bird which stood >2 m tall), Haast’s eagle (the largest eagle ever to live), and extant flightless birds such as our national symbol, the kiwi. Prominent among our flightless native birds are the kākāpō and takahē, which have both suffered terribly since the arrival of mammalian predators to this country and are now classified as “critically endangered” and "threatened", respectively. The takahē was for 50 years even thought to be extinct, until it was “rediscovered” in a remote valley in Fiordland in 1948. Both of these iconic NZ species are intensively managed, with the aim to increase bird numbers across a variety of protected island (and some mainland) sites.
In close cooperation with the kākāpō and takahē recovery programmes within the Department of Conservation (DOC), we are researching the gut microbiomes of these fascinating NZ birds. Our 16S rRNA gene-based sequencing has indicated that the kākāpō harbours a low-diversity microbiome that is typically dominated by one or two species (operational taxonomic units) of the bacterial genus Escherichia/Shigella. Subsequent ecological network analyses and shotgun metagenomics sequencing has been providing novel insights into the interactions and functions, respectively, of the kākāpō gut microbiota. This kākāpō research has assumed greater urgency in recent times due to the emergence of a mysterious inflammatory condition known as exudative cloacitis (charmingly nicknamed “crusty bum”!). We have begun working with the DOC team as well as researchers at Landcare Research and other NZ institutions to determine the cause of the cloacitis. Check out the Twitter feed of Dr Andrew Digby, Scientific Advisor for the kākāpō and takahē recovery programmes.
We have only recently started to investigate the takahē microbiome, so watch this space as our research in this area progresses! As with the kākāpō research, our overarching aim is to contribute to the conservation effort of our endangered species by learning about the role of the microbiome in animal health and disease. We have recently published a Perspective article entitled “The microbiome in threatened species conservation”.