A lost link between a flightless parrot and a parasitic plant and the potential role of coprolites in conservation paleobiology

Jamie Wood, Janet Wilmshurst, Trevor H. Worthy, A. Hopzapfel, Alan Cooper

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    24 Citations (Scopus)

    Abstract

    Late Quaternary extinctions and population fragmentations have severely disrupted animal-plant interactions globally. Detection of disrupted interactions often relies on anachronistic plant characteristics, such as spines in the absence of large herbivores or large fruit without dispersers. However, obvious anachronisms are relatively uncommon, and it can be difficult to prove a direct link between the anachronism and a particular faunal taxon. Analysis of coprolites (fossil feces) provides a novel way of exposing lost interactions between animals (depositors) and consumed organisms. We analyzed ancient DNA to show that a coprolite from the South Island of New Zealand was deposited by the rare and threatened kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), a large, nocturnal, flightless parrot. When we analyzed the pollen and spore content of the coprolite, we found pollen from the cryptic root-parasite Dactylanthus taylorii. The relatively high abundance (8.9% of total pollen and spores) of this zoophilous pollen type in the coprolite supports the hypothesis of a former direct feeding interaction between kakapo and D. taylorii. The ranges of both species have contracted substantially since human settlement, and their present distributions no longer overlap. Currently, the lesser short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata) is the only known native pollinator of D. taylorii, but our finding raises the possibility that birds, and other small fauna, could have once fed on and pollinated the plant. If confirmed, through experimental work and observations, this finding may inform conservation of the plant. For example, it may be possible to translocate D. taylorii to predator-free offshore islands that lack bats but have thriving populations of endemic nectar-feeding birds. The study of coprolites of rare or extinct taxonomic groups provides a unique way forward to expand existing knowledge of lost plant and animal interactions and to identify pollination and dispersal syndromes. This approach of linking paleobiology with neoecology offers significant untapped potential to help inform conservation and restoration plans.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1091-1099
    Number of pages9
    JournalConservation Biology
    Volume26
    Issue number6
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2012

    Keywords

    • Dactylanthus taylorii
    • Ecological interactions
    • Herbivory
    • Kakapo
    • New Zealand
    • Pollination
    • Strigops habroptilus

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