Kākāpō gut bacteria key to its survival

The poo of the world's rarest parrot could be key to its salvation.

A study of faecal samples from 35 nests found the kākāpō's gut bacteria is likely influenced by what chicks are fed, and improvements to feed could make them more resilient to disease.

They're nocturnal, flightless, the heaviest parrot in the world and thought to live to 90.

Now we know even kākāpō's kaka (poo) is unique.

"What we saw was that their gut was predominantly dominated by E. coli, and that's something that's very strange in the animal kingdom," Auckland University microbial ecologist Dr Annie West said.

Even stranger, the closest gut bacteria match the scientists could find was a very different-looking herbivore.

"When we found this really strange result we thought, can we see it anywhere else in the animal kingdom, and we found it in the giant panda," Dr West said.

Dr West studied 67 kākāpō chicks' gut microbiome - that's bacteria - in work the Department of Conservation (DoC) said is critical to saving the species.

"The microbiome is incredibly important for the health of an animal, we know that from humans and we're extending that to kākāpō," DoC science advisor kākāpō/takahe Dr Andrew Digby said.

There are just 252 kākāpō left, and they're already plagued by disease and low fertility levels, so need all the help they can get.

"The microbiome can tell us if the bird is undergoing any disease or negative health issues and essentially use it as a surveying or profiling tool to undergo preventative management so that these birds don't get really really sick if we could help it."

Microorganisms are also important for reproductive success in endangered species - research from San Diego Zoo found altering the diet of southern white rhinos resulted in more calves being born.

"It's really important for us now to understand how those factors are influencing threatened species in health and reproduction," Dr West said.

Kākāpō need to be hand-reared in many cases or they'll die - but that hand-rearing could be detrimental to chicks' gut health, both because of the sterile environment and the supplementary feed given to chicks - which is often a parrot food imported from the US.

"We found that the supplemental feed that was given to chicks when they were born and initially raised in hand-rearing, was substantially altering the bacteria found in the gut microbiome," Dr West said.

It's renewed scientists' efforts to mimic natural food, but Dr Digby said that's no small task.

"It's actually very very difficult, we've tried many different recipes, it's a case of trying to get the right nutritional balance and that you can present a food that the kākāpō will eat," he said.

"Kākāpō have got a quite unusual diet and nutritional needs compared to other parrots, kākāpō do not follow the rules."