Endangered kakapo parrot becomes first bird to undergo brain surgery, makes 'remarkable recovery'
An endangered New Zealand parrot has become the first bird in the world to have undergone a brain surgery. The 56-day old kakapo parrot, known as Espy 1B, underwent the surgery to rectify a developmental problem of the skull and has made a "remarkable recovery" to being a healthy growing chick.
Espy was hatched on Codfish Island in southern New Zealand and was in the care of the Department of Conservation's Kakapo Recovery Team when rangers noticed an unusual lump on its skull.
Vets at Massey University's Wildbase Hospital were able to treat the kakapo parrot, which was born with a hole in its skull, by applying surgical techniques used on humans and other mammals.
Describing the moment he knew the bird required urgent attention, Professor Brett Gartrell, director of Wildbase Hospital, said in a statement: "The CT scan showed that the plates of its skull had not completely fused and the fontanelle was still open. The chick was hatched with a hole in its skull that allowed part of the brain and dura (the tough barrier around the brain) to herniate out, the technical term for this condition is a meningoencephalocele. In humans, this spot fuses after birth, but this is highly unusual in birds as the skull has finished fusing prior to hatch. The concern was that if this tissue was damaged this would open the brain to trauma and infection."
Veterinarians from Auckland Zoo, Wellington Zoo and Dunedin Wildlife Hospital planned the surgery, and the country’s national airline transported the 56-day-old chick. Professor Gartrell said with no precedent available, they took inspiration from surgical procedures in human medicine.
“This is a risky surgery and the common complications for this surgery in humans include permanent brain damage, continued leakage of cerebrospinal fluid and the possibility of meningitis,” said Gatrell, who described the operation as 'intense'.
A week on, after the surgery has been deemed a complete success by the team, Espy returned to his home at Dunedin Wildlife Hospital in the South Island, where it is hoped he will thrive and eventually breed.
Kakapos are nocturnal forest-dwelling birds that remain the world's only flightless parrot and are often seen roosting in trees or on the ground. They are also the largest, heaviest parrot in the world. Despite not being able to fly, the birds are able to use their strong legs to climb tall trees and use their short wings to act as a parachute as they travel through the forest.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the birds, which are also the heaviest species of parrot, are classified as a critically endangered species, with only 147 adult kakapos remaining in the world. A few hundred years ago kākāpō were one of New Zealand’s most common birds, before being hunted to the brink of extinction, killed by introduced pests, and losing their forest homes to farming.
Espy is one of 76 kākāpō chicks that have hatched this year in a record-breaking breeding season for the critically endangered bird. But in the weeks since the high birth rate was reported by conservation staff, a number of chicks have died.