Jem the kākāpō

Image: Jake Osborne | DOC

Introduction

Aspergillosis is a fungal infection threatening kākāpō on Codfish Island / Whenua Hou.

Highlights

Update: 10 February 2020

In early February 2020, the final two kākāpō receiving treatment for Aspergillosis returned to Whenua Hou. Adult kākāpō Margaret-Maree had been receiving treatment at Auckland Zoo since 20 May 2019 (a total of 261 days), and juvenile Toiora (previously Esperance-2B) since 2 May (a total of 277 days). These are the longest ever hospital stays for kākāpō.

The Aspergillosis outbreak resulted in a total of 21 cases. Twelve individuals recovered following treatment – two adult females (Cyndy and Margaret-Maree) and ten juveniles (Alice-3-A-19, Awarua-3-A-19, Esperance-2-B-19, Esperance-3-B-19, Hinemoa-3-A-19, Huhana-2-A-19, Kuihi-1-B-19, Kuihi-2-A-19, Kuihi-3-B-19, Nora-3-B-19, Pearl-2-B-19).

Nine died from the disease – two adult females (Hoki and Huhana) and seven chicks/juveniles from the 2019 cohort (Bella-1-A-19, Bella-2-A-19, Kuihi-3-B-19, Magaret-Maree-2-B-19, Nora-1-A-19, Queenie-4-A-19, Tumeke-4-A-19).

An international team of researchers are working to better understand the causes of this outbreak to inform future management strategies. We are indebted to Auckland Zoo, Dunedin Wildlife Hospital and Wildbase Hospital for their support throughout this crisis.

Aspergillosis is having a devastating impact on kākāpō.

Detecting and treating birds with this potentially fatal disease is extremely difficult. Birds are flown by helicopter to mainland New Zealand for CT scans, and if affected face several months or more of intensive treatment.

There's a lot of work involved in caring for the affected kākāpō, and managing the kākāpō population to minimise the outbreak.

Managing the outbreak

On top of the usual work of looking after kākāpō through a busy breeding season, there's a massive effort to care for affected birds and reduce the risk to the kākāpō population.

All birds have to be screened to see if they are affected. This involves catching the birds, and running diagnostics such as weight, physical examination and blood sample collection, beginning with birds prioritised as most at risk. This disease surveillance work to monitor the health of the population is ongoing.

The highest risk birds are flown to the mainland for further testing including CT scans. The affected birds are receiving veterinary treatment. 

All remaining chicks in nests have been removed for hand rearing to prevent further exposure to high spore loading.

Further diagnostic samples are being taken to measure the spore levels in nests, and to detect possible underlying viral or fungal infections. 

More about aspergillosis

Aspergillosis is an infection caused by a type of fungus. It can affect people as well as birds and other animals.

Aspergillosis spores are abundant in the environment and are typically inhaled. The spores usually only cause disease if individuals have reduced immunity and/or if there is an increased concentration of spores in the environment. 

Currently, we think the cause of this outbreak is the significant spore loading in nests on Whenua Hou this season, coupled with possible nest stress leading to infection. We're investigating other potential causes of low immunity.

Kākāpō Recovery is working with Auckland Zoo, Massey Wildbase, Dunedin Wildlife Hospital and Wellington Zoo to understand the underlying cause and to prevent as many future cases as possible.

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