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Fossilized Dung Hints That One Endangered Species Might Be the Savior of Another

Researchers examined fossilized kakapo dung and found that it contained wood rose spores, suggesting that the kakapo played an important role in pollinating the threatened plant

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New Zealand’s kakapo. Photo: Department of Conservation

Ecologists often point out the seemingly hidden or unexpected connections between organisms, and another fine example of nature’s complex web just emerged from New Zealand: dung from endangered parrots may help save an equally endangered plant from extinction.

The plant, referred to as wood rose or Hades flower, parasitizes 30 types of trees in New Zealand, but its continued existence is threatened due to habitat loss, limited pollinators and predation by invasive species such as possums and pigs. Today, the wood rose exists in just 4 percent of its historic range.

However, new research finds that wood rose habitat once overlapped with a critically endangered flightless parrot called the kakapo. As with so many island birds, human arrival on New Zealand quickly saw the species plummet, and the animals now only live on a few remote specks of land.

To make the connection between wood roses and kakapos, researchers examined fossilized kakapo dung found in areas where both species used to overlap. The dung contained high percentages of wood rose spores, suggesting that the kakapo played an important role in pollinating the threatened plant and spreading its seeds.

Researchers are eager to reunite the two species and put this relationship to the test, Scientific American explains:

Earlier this year eight kakapos were moved to New Zealand’s Little Barrier Island, which also happens to be one of the few remaining habitats for the wood rose. According to the researchers, this could be the first time these two species have shared the same habitat in the past century.

The researchers will use camera traps to see if the birds are pollinating the sweet-smelling wood rose, seen here in this time lapse video:

More from Smithsonian.com:

Going to Extremes 
The World’s 5 Most Mysterious Bird Species 

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