Parrot poo of the past provides plenty to probe

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Ancient kakapo poo is revealing information on how Central Otago looked thousands of years ago.

Alex Boast of Landcare Research in Lincoln visited the museum last week to take samples from two sets of kakapo coprolites (droppings).

One was from a kakapo nest found near Gibraltar Rock in 1987, during the construction of the highway from Clyde to Cromwell as part of the Clyde Dam construction.

The second was from a rock shelter on the Clutha River near Alexandra.

Both had been carbon-dated to about 2000-3000 years old.

Mr Boast will conduct DNA analysis on tiny samples from two kakapo feathers and three coprolites as part of his PhD study of ancient coprolites.

“The coprolites are amazing because you now have a direct record of their behaviour – what they were eating – and possibly what they were feeding to chicks.”

The analysis could provide new insights into the type of vegetation that existed in the river flats and gorges of Central Otago thousands of years ago.

“Central Otago is very interesting ecologically because it’s so dry, its so arid, it was one of the few places that really wasn’t very naturally forested.

“When you look at the current [historical] record of kakapo, their fossils tend to be clustered in areas that are quite wet and rainy.”

Finding kakapo in this more arid environment provided insights into the upper limits of areas that could sustain them, which could be useful to know for current conservation efforts, Mr Boast said.

DNA information that could be extracted from the coprolites included “whole profiles of plants, fungi, diseases”, and they were able to provide information on “the prehistoric ecology of kakapo”.

Museum general manager Maurice Watson said the research showed museum collections were important.

“These specimens are quite boring to look at and therefore not strong contenders for public display, but the information scientific research can reveal is very important.

“That is why it is so important that museums provide a very high level of care for collections, as we do not understand what research will happen .. in the future.”

It was essential that museums retained collections such as these, Mr Boast said.

“The research that’s been happening on coprolites, for example, has only really come off in the past 10 years or so, based on new technologies, but a lot of these specimens were collected decades ago, so it has required a huge amount of forward thinking to retain a lot of these specimens.”