The takahē is a large, flightless bird – the largest living rail bird in the world. Rails are a family of ground-living birds and live on every continent except Antarctica. Takahē are endemic to Aotearoa New Zealand, which means they naturally live here and nowhere else in the world.
The takahē’s scientific name is Porphyrio hochstetteri and it is also called the South Island takahē to distinguish it from its extinct relative, the North Island takahē or moho (Porphyrio mantelli). Takahē also share a common ancestor with pūkeko, but there are many differences between the species. Learn more about the takahē and its relatives in the article The takahē’s evolutionary history.
Discover how new genetic research in 2023 shed new light on the evolutionary history of the takahē and uncovered the significant impact of humans and past climate change on takahē.
A conservation icon
The Department of Conservation calls the takahē a conservation icon and a survivor. Subfossil evidence shows the birds used to live across much of Te Waipounamu South Island. They were officially declared extinct in 1898. However, after some detective work and a carefully planned search, takahē were rediscovered in Fiordland’s Murchison Mountains in 1948. The location was declared a special area and closed to public access. At first, takahē were left on their own, but after a few years, it became clear that they would need special management.
Read about the famous rediscovery of takahē and the huge effort that has gone into boosting the takahē population in the article Takahē conservation efforts.
Habitat and behaviour
Wild takahē populations live in harsh alpine conditions. They feed on alpine grass species called snow tussock. They use their strong beaks to cut and strip the tough blades. When winter snow covers the tussock, takahē move down to forested areas for shelter and to feed on fern rhizomes. After the snow melts, takahē return to the grasslands to make nests among the tussocks.
Until 2018, the only wild population of takahē lived in the Murchison Mountains in Fiordland. The Department of Conservation’s Takahē Recovery Programme released 18 birds in Kahurangi National Park. Subfossil records show that takahē once lived in the Kahurangi area. DOC staff studied the location for years to ensure conditions were optimal for takahē survival.
The article The takahē’s ecological niche provides more information about the birds’ habitat, behaviours and adaptations.
Threats to takahē
Experts wonder if the surviving takahē lived in the Murchison Mountains because it was their preferred habitat or because it was a safe place. The Murchison Mountains are in a rugged, isolated region, and for a long time, the area was free from introduced predators.
Initially, takahē faced competition from red deer, which also grazed the tussock grasses. Deer culling reduced the deer population, and since 1980, it has remained low. Stoats, however, have become established in the Fiordland mountains, and flightless birds who nest on the ground are at their mercy. Fierce weather and avalanches also put takahē in danger. Read more about these risks and how they are being managed in the article Threats to takahē. You can also find out more about the dynamics of populations in Population biology. The article Population genetics discusses the threat posed by a genetic bottleneck for species like takahē.
Take up the challenge
The topic of takahē is a natural gateway for scientific and cross-curricular study. Takahē – a context for learning identifies key biological concepts covered by our resources. Use information from the articles to complete the student activities. For example, the activity Abiotic and biotic factors for takahē explores the interrelationships associated with takahē and the Murchison Mountains environment.
Takahē – question bank provides an initial list of questions about takahē conservation and places where their answers can be found. The question bank is useful for those using an inquiry approach.
The following interactive planning pathway groups resources into key science and teaching topics.
ZEALANDIA resources for teachers and students
Urban ecosanctuary ZEALANDIA has produced a comprehensive set of teaching resources designed to support Biology Achievement Standard 91158. Many of the materials can also be used as stand-alone resources for learning about takahē biology and conservation. Links to the ZEALANDIA resources can be found in the article Takahē – a context for learning and the interactive Planning pathways using takahē resources.
Nature of science
Takahē conservation efforts offer an excellent example of the collaborative nature of science. Experts from many fields use their specialised knowledge to contribute to the Takahē Recovery Programme – genetics, animal behaviour, habitat restoration, translocation practices, predator control, climate and more.
Conserving native birds - introduction curates Hub resources about native bird conservation, their roles in ecosystems, adaptations and more!
Check out the Department of Conservation’s Takahē Recovery Programme.
ZEALANDIA ecosanctuary has a small resident takahē population.
Find out more about the extinct moho or North Island takahē from New Zealand Birds Online.
The New Zealand Geographic article Road to recovery reports on the birds now living in the Gouland Downs in Kahurangi National Park. The article also has information about takahē breeding and biology.