Kākāpō brain surgery a world-first

kakapo
Kākāpō after world-first brain surgery.

A young kākāpō chick has undergone life-saving brain surgery at Massey University’s Wildbase Hospital to treat a developmental problem of the skull, a world-first procedure, adapting surgical techniques from humans and other mammals.

Known as Espy 1B, the now 56-day-old wild-hatched kākāpō chick from Whenua Hou/Codfish Island was in the care of the Department of Conservation’s Kākāpō Recovery Team when rangers noted an unusual lump on its skull soon after hatching. The chick was sent to the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital for a CT scan as soon as it was old enough.

Director of Wildbase Hospital Professor Brett Gartrell said the scan revealed just a thin layer of tissue between the brain and the outside world.

“The CT scan showed that the plates of its skull had not completely fused and the fontanelle was still open. The chick was hatched with a hole in its skull that allowed part of the brain and dura (the tough barrier around the brain) to herniate out. The technical term for this condition is a meningoencephalocoele.

“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.

“With only 144 kākāpō left in the world, this condition could be life-threatening for the critically endangered bird, so action needed to be taken, but nothing like it had been attempted before in avian medicine,” Professor Gartrell added.

Led by Professor Gartrell, a team of veterinarians and veterinary technicians at Massey carried out the pioneering surgery, extrapolating from the techniques used to treat this condition in humans and other mammals to the peculiarities of avian anatomy. 

The chick has made a remarkable recovery after surgery and is back to being a healthy growing kākāpō. 

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