New Zealand’s Zombie Parasite

Something is eating kiwi’s brains.

A mysterious parasite is eating kiwis from the inside out – and no one knows exactly what it is.

Around 15 years ago, scientists began seeing the deadly parasite having a terrible effect on kiwis in captivity. Now, around one tenth of captive kiwis catch the parasite and half of those die.

While the parasite does affect kiwis in the wild, only half as many wild birds are affected.

The parasite, a type of roundworm, burrows into the bird and eats away at its brain and liver, resulting in illness or death.

A new Massey University Wildbase study will address the increasing threat to the birds, aiming to identify and manage the parasites.

Dr George Mason examines a Morepork being treated at Massey’s Wildbase Hospital [Image: Massey University]

“Although human intervention is necessary to curb the decline of New Zealand’s many endangered native birds, if our involvement is negatively affecting their health, we need to understand why that is happening and how the situation can be improved,” says Massey Wildbase director Professor Brett Gartrell.

The study will also look at breeding programs for all five species of kiwi, hoping to find a reason that captive birds are more susceptible.

“The results of our research will have implications and benefits to the intensive management of wild species globally,” says Professor Gartrell.

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This kiwi has many mammalian qualities including functional ovaries and soft fur-like feathers. The kiwi has been evolving over 70 million years and before the introduction of predators, such as cats and possums, was perfectly suited to the New Zealand environment.

Over 80 years ago there were more than 5 million birds that still existed, today that number is down to 50,000, which makes them a critically endangered species.

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