Last Updated on February 24, 2023 by Ali Shahid
Kakapo is a magnificent flightless owl parrot that is endemic to New Zealand. Its small population of around 249 individuals is spread across three main islands. Kakapos are experiencing the deadly respiratory effects of aspergillosis since 2019.
Aspergillosis is causing fatalities in the remaining population of kakapos in New Zealand. As Kakapos are already considered critically endangered, the whole population is under monitoring.
The Dunedin Wildlife Hospital & Auckland Zoo are following the intensive care management of kakapos. Aspergillosis is fairly hard to eliminate in birds because of the widespread respiratory illness and high mortality rate.
Aspergillosis & its Pathogenesis in Kakapos
Aspergillosis is a fungal infection caused by fungal strains in humans & many types of birds, and animals. According to a 2022 study, it is estimated that the largest aspergillosis outbreak in Kakapos is because of a single fungal strain.
This specific strain known as Aspergillus fumigatus persists in the environment for many decades. Around 21 Kakapos parrots were infected with aspergillosis back in 2019 from April to May.
Aspergillosis mainly targets the upper & lower respiratory tract of kakapos with serious effects. Aspergillus grows and multiplies in the air passages slowly and damages the tissues. Kakapos with compromised immunity are especially at risk of catching aspergillosis through spores.
With time, the pathogenesis of aspergillosis is not limited to the respiratory tract. The fungal strain makes its way to the other internal organs of Kakapos causing severe illness. Juveniles and adult birds eventually die of the disease progression & organ failure.
The spread of aspergillus spores is through an environment that has high spores count. Adult kakapos with a good immune system are resistant to aspergillosis illness. However, the disease is slowly progressing and does have fatal outcomes if not treated and diagnosed at an early stage.
Diagnostics in Kakapos Aspergillosis
The veterinarians of the Kakapos conservation department put considerable effort into controlling aspergillosis. When the outbreak was initially diagnosed, around 51 kakapos were immediately transferred to veterinary hospitals.
The main challenge in handling and treating aspergillosis is the case fatality rates. Aspergillosis is very hard to treat in the case of Kakapos and often results in death even on an intensive care plan. For a complete diagnosis, multiple tests are needed to analyze the underlying cause.
Aspergillus fumigatus affects the internal organs and cause systemic illness. The veterinarians perform a complete blood count to know if the illness is related to fungal pathogens. An elevation in the white blood cells above the maximum reference value is very helpful in this regard.
The respiratory effects of aspergillosis in kakapos start becoming visible on radiographs. This includes the deposition of mucus and pus material inside the trachea and air sacs. Apart from that, the affected Kakapo shows signs of breath shortness and pneumonia.
Apart from doing additional serology and DNA testing, surgical laparoscopy is a useful diagnostic tool. As the whole population of Kakapo is monitored, all of the individuals are checked by endoscopy to view the disease progression in the respiratory system.
Treatment Options for Aspergillosis in Kakapos
Aspergillosis is not a contagious infection and doesn’t spread from one kakapo to another. The disease progressed when the spores are inhaled or ingested from the environment. Therefore, the treatment is aimed at controlling the fungal spread and treating the affected kakapos.
The infected Kakapos need to be hospitalized immediately and an aggressive treatment plan is followed. Aspergillosis is a challenging disease and drugs are not very helpful because of the robust and resistant disease mechanism.
To wall off the fungal infection, the immune system of the kakapo must be strong enough. The antifungal treatment choices involve the use of oral and aerosolized antifungal agents. The duration of treatment can go from weeks up to months for the elimination of aspergillus.
In some cases, surgery is also performed by a skilled avian surgeon to remove the tracheal content. In the case of Kakapos, surgical intervention is a risky process with a limited success rate. Hospitalized Kakapos also need good hygiene and regular disinfection to prevent reoccurrence.
It is important to administer antibiotic and inflammatory medications in aspergillosis. The weak immune system of Kakapos makes them easily prone to secondary bacterial infections. Additionally, Kakapos need oxygen therapy to prevent hypoxia and blocking of respiratory passages.
During the treatment phase, Kakapos are kept on force-feeding and the environmental conditions such as temperature are regularly monitored. At the same time, disinfection of the premises and putting every suspected kakapo in close monitoring is direly important.
Ali Shahid is a veterinarian by profession and an animal lover. He loves to give expert opinions about different animals. He has worked in top organization of birds like Bigbird Feed and Poultry Research institute. He loves birds, especially parrots and has great experience in different parrot farms.