Above: The young kakapo after the first ever brain surgery on a bird. Photo: Massey Wildbase Hospital



IN A FIRST for avian medicine, an unfledged kakapo chick (Strigops habroptilus) was given life-saving brain surgery.

With only 144 kakapo left in the world it was vitally important to try to save this one, born with a hole in its skull. The chick was in the care of New Zealand’s Department of Conservation’s Kakapo recovery team which works with scientists, rangers, volunteers and donors to protect the Critically Endangered bird. Rangers noticed a lump on the chick’s skull and sent it to Dunedin Wildlife Hospital for a CT scan, where they discovered that it only had a thin membrane of tissue between the brain and the outside world.

Hospital director professor Brett Gartrell said: “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.”

The chick’s plight stirred a group of veterinarians from around New Zealand to determine whether surgery was the best option, and Air New Zealand flew the kakapo free of charge to Massey Wildbase Hospital, the country’s only dedicated wildlife hospital and at the forefront of wildlife conservation.

Led by Professor Gartrell, a team of vets and veterinary technicians performed the pioneering surgery, which he described as “intense”, adapting brain surgery techniques used on humans and other mammals to suit avian anatomy.

Despite the risky surgery, the chick has made a remarkable recovery and is growing healthily. It is due to be taken back to the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital where it will be paired up with another kakapo chick to reduce the risk of imprinting with people.

“This was only possible because of a national collaboration with vets and conservation workers,” said Professor Gartrell.

Sometimes called the owl parrot because of its nocturnal habits, the kakapo is the world’s only species of flightless parrot and also the heaviest, weighing in at between 2-4kg (4½ to 9lb).

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