Mar 21
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In the News: Rare Amsterdam albatross confirmed as a unique species

Scientists have confirmed that the world’s rarest albatross, the Amsterdam albatross (Diomedea amsterdamensis), is indeed a separate species, ending 20 years of debate on the status of this Critically Endangered bird.

Photo of Amsterdam albatross displaying

This marine albatross spends the majority of its life out at sea, coming to land only to breed.

Genetic analysis 

The Amsterdam albatross is named after Amsterdam Island in the Indian Ocean, the only place in the world where this species breeds. It was first described in 1983, but the scientific community has since been divided over whether it is a separate species or a subspecies of the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), which also inhabits the Southern Ocean. 

A team of Canadian researchers aimed to resolve this debate by examining the Amsterdam albatross’ DNA. The study, which is published in the Journal of Avian Biology, revealed significant differences between this species’ DNA and that of the wandering albatross, proving that these close relatives are indeed separate species. 

The genetic analysis also showed that the Amsterdam albatross separated from the wandering albatross as long as 265,000 years ago.

Photo of Amsterdam albatross sitting on nest

Nesting occurs on a highland plateau, at 470 to 640 metres, in an area of peat bog that has an ample covering of moss.

Geographic isolation 

Dr Theresa Burg from the University of Lethbridge, Canada, one of the report’s authors, explained how the Amsterdam albatross differs in appearance from the wandering albatross.  

“They are slightly smaller in size” she said. “They lay their eggs at a different time and have slightly browner plumage than the other wandering albatrosses.” 

The report’s authors suggest that this species’ isolation from other albatrosses on the remote, volcanic Amsterdam Island, where it is the only breeding albatross, possibly led to its separation and development as a unique species.

Photo of Amsterdam albatross chick in nesting habitat

Although the population is currently stable, its small size and existence on just a single island means the Amsterdam albatross has a precarious status.

A Critically Endangered species 

With only around 170 individuals remaining, and just 18 to 26 pairs breeding annually, it is hoped that efforts to conserve the Amsterdam albatross will be increased. 

Grazing by livestock on Amsterdam Island, predation by introduced mammals and accidental entanglement in long-line fishing gear have all imperilled this species, which is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List

“This is one additional, but important, piece of evidence that hopefully can help protect the remaining Amsterdam albatrosses” said Dr Burg. 

View 20 photos of the Amsterdam albatross on ARKive.

Read the study at the Journal of Avian Biology.

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author

Feb 25
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In the News: Rat eradication on South Georgia

The largest rat eradication programme in history is to begin on a remote UK island, in a bid to save millions of seabirds from these invasive predators.

South Georgia pipit portrait

The South Georgia pipit is the only songbird in the Antarctic region, but is under threat from predation by brown rats.

Brown rats reached the island of South Georgia, in the South Atlantic Ocean, around 200 years ago, transported on sealing and whaling ships. Since then, the rodents have wreaked havoc on the island’s bird life, eating the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting seabirds and driving the endemic South Georgia pipit towards extinction.

Largest ever rat eradication

The eradication programme will involve dropping poison bait from helicopters in an attempt to rid the island of rats. The first poison drops are about to begin, but will initially take place over a limited area to assess whether the techniques are working. If successful, the programme will then be extended to the whole island.

Photo of brown rat

The brown rat has been introduced to many islands around the world, often causing great damage to native wildlife.

With 800 square kilometres to cover, this is the largest eradication programme ever attempted. However, scientists hope that it will clear South Georgia of rats within the next five years.

South Georgia’s birds to benefit

Once the rats are gone, tens of millions of seabirds could return to South Georgia each year to breed. According to Professor Tony Martin, the South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project Director, “The vast majority of birds that should be breeding on South Georgia have been displaced by the presence of rats. Rats have gone virtually everywhere except the very cold southern coast. We are looking to restore millions, possibly tens of millions of sea birds to the island.”

South Georgia pintail side profile

Found only on South Georgia, the South Georgia pintail is the most southerly recorded waterfowl species.

Species which will benefit from the rat eradication include the South Georgia pintail, a subspecies of yellow-billed pintail endemic to South Georgia, as well as seabirds such as Wilson’s storm-petrel and the white-chinned petrel.

Scientists are also confident that the programme will help save the South Georgia pipit from extinction. The world’s most southerly songbird, this endemic species has been lost from most of the main island and is now restricted largely to offshore islets. 

 

Photo of Wilson's storm-petrel in flight

Wilson’s storm-petrel is just one of many seabirds that will benefit from rat removal on South Georgia.

Professor Tony Martin says, “The exciting thing for me about this is there are few things you can do to revert the impact of human activity on the planet but what we are going to be doing will reverse two centuries of human impacts on the island.”

Visit the South Georgia Heritage Trust and find out more about the UK Overseas Territories.

View species from South Georgia on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author 

 

Feb 15
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ARKive’s Love Species Campaign: I ♥ crayfish

Another Valentine’s day has passed us by and it seems as though invertebrates have been overlooked. If our spineless friends had the capability to feel emotion, this would surely be a blow to their fragile self esteem.

One of my personal favourite invert groups are the crayfish. At a time of year when couples are demonstrating love for one another by dancing in the manner of a bird of paradise, or showing commitment by fusing with their other half in the in the style of a deep sea anglerfish, these enigmatic Arthropods are simply left out.

In the spirit of ARKive’s Love Species Campaign, I want more people to appreciate crayfish for what they are, so here is why I love them.

Freshwater lobsters

You might have noticed that crayfish strongly resemble lobsters in appearance, and that’s because they are, in fact, very closely related. Both groups belong to the infra-order Astacidea.

Unlike lobsters however, which are marine crustaceans, crayfish only inhabit freshwater systems such as streams and rivers. Generally speaking, crayfish are also a fair bit smaller than your average lobster, but some have been shown to reach truly massive sizes.

Owing to their riverine existence, crayfish are often referred to as freshwater lobsters, neatly leading on to my next point.

Freshwater white-clawed crayfish photo

Funny names

As a group, crayfish are rather cosmopolitan. They exist on a variety of continents and so people have labelled them with a host of interesting names. Focusing on the English speaking world, ‘craw’ seems to be a preferred prefix in the USA. Names there range from crawfish, crawdad and crawdaddy, all the way over to mudbug and my personal favourite; spoondog.

As always, Australia takes the cake for far-flung nomenclature, referring to a variety of crayfish species as yabbies.

Yabbie crayfish photo

The yabbie - crayfish are amphibious, able to traverse stretches of land between freshwater systems such as rivers and streams.

Crayfish plague my heart

Crayfish around the world are susceptible to a nasty fungal disease known as crayfish plague. Europe is currently seeing the worst effects, with the plague being highly lethal to native species such as the now Endangered white-clawed crayfish.

What’s worse, European species are being outcompeted by an invasive called the American signal crayfish. Not only is it larger and more efficient at catching food, but the American signal is resistant to plague. It acts as a carrier for the disease as it spreads across the continent, obliterating native European crayfish when entering new freshwater systems.

Common carp being fed on by an invasive species; the American signal crayfish

American signal crayfish feasting on a common carp. This species acts as a carrier for crayfish plague.

There you have it. I love crayfish because they look like lobsters, have a variety of strange names (bonus name; grave digger) and are threatened by a lethal fungal disease.

It’s all too easy to overlook less aesthetic species in favour of fluffier ones, but I hope this will inspire you to spare a thought for invertebrate life at this lonely time of year.

Robert Morgan, ARKive Media Researcher

Jan 17
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In the News: Fijian islands confirmed rat-free

Important seabird populations on the Ringgold Islands, Fiji, now face a brighter future after all seven islands were confirmed to be rat-free.

Photo of a bridled tern feeding a chick

The bridled tern (Sterna anaethetus) has now been recorded on two of the Ringgold Islands.

A two-year rat eradication programme, undertaken by the BirdLife International Fiji Programme in partnership with local landowning clans, used specially formulated bait to successfully remove introduced Pacific rats (Rattus exulans) from the remote islands. As in many parts of the Pacific, these invasive rodents posed a serious threat to native seabird populations, feeding on eggs and chicks. The rats also impacted local people by ruining crops and food stores.

Photo of a lesser frigatebird male returning to nesting colony to feed chick

The lesser frigatebird (Fregata ariel), another species to benefit from rat eradication.

Wildlife already benefitting

Early monitoring work suggests that birds and other wildlife are already benefitting from the removal of the rats. The bridled tern, not previously known in the area, has now bred on the islands, while other species which have benefitted include the lesser frigatebird, black noddy, brown noddy, red-footed booby and the globally Vulnerable bristle-thighed curlew.

Photo of a bristle-thighed curlew calling

The bristle-thighed curlew (Numenius tahitiensis) is under threat from introduced predators on its wintering grounds.

Significant numbers of sea turtle nests have also been recorded on three of the islands, and there has been an increase in the activity of skinks such as the Pacific black skink (Emoia nigra), a species listed under Fiji’s Endangered and Protected Species Act.

Ringgold Seabird Committee

In association with the landowning communities, BirdLife International has set up a Site Support Group for the islands, known as the Ringgold Seabird Committee. This group will help to communicate the results of the rat eradication and promote the islands’ protection among the wider communities. Fishermen and visitors to the islands are also being encouraged to check boats and equipment for possible stowaways, and local people are being trained in techniques to prevent the introduction of alien species.

Photo of a black noddy adult perched on branch

The black noddy (Anous minutus), a tropical tern species with breeding colonies on the Ringgold Islands.

The rat eradication programme is only the first step in protecting the wildlife of the Ringgold Islands, and BirdLife International is continuing to work with local people to ensure that rats and other invasive species do not return to these important Fijian islands.

See the BirdLife International Fiji Programme for more information on BirdLife International’s work in this region.

Explore more endangered species from Fiji on ARKive.

Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author

Oct 20
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Rat eradication planned for Pacific Island

Henderson petrel

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has announced plans to remove non-native rats from the Pacific Island of Henderson, in an attempt to prevent the global extinction of a unique seabird, the Henderson petrel (Pterodroma atrata). The introduced Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) are eating an estimated 25,000 petrel chicks every year, and are also thought to be threatening the island’s other native bird species.

Part of the UK Overseas Territory of the Pitcairn Islands, Henderson Island is a remote, uninhabited island with a unique array of wildlife, including large numbers of breeding seabirds and four endemic land birds. Although still remarkably untouched by humans, the presence of rats is threatening the survival of many of the island’s native species, and may already be responsible for the extinction of four endemic birds. If left unchecked, rat predation will also lead to the eventual extinction of the Henderson petrel, which is not known to breed anywhere else in the world.

In an attempt to save the Henderson petrel, the RSPB is now planning the complete eradication of rats from the island. Speaking about the planned project, Dr Tim Stowe, the RSPB’s International Director, said, “This week, the world’s leaders will be gathering in Japan to discuss how to stem the catastrophic declines in global biodiversity, especially on islands. This project is a good example of how we can make a difference to global conservation, provided more donors can help us reach our funding target.”

Planned to start in August 2011, the eradication programme will cost a total of £1.7 million, of which a further £600,000 is still needed in donations. With 95 percent of petrel chicks on the island lost to rats every year, the need for this project is clear. However, if successful, the eradication should not only save the Henderson petrel, but also benefit Henderson Island’s other threatened wildlife and help restore the natural beauty of this remote Pacific paradise.

Some of the species unique to Henderson Island include:

Henderson crake Found only on Henderson Island, the Henderson crake is a flightless bird whose eggs and chicks are vulnerable to predation by introduced rats.

 

Henderson fruit-dove

As its name suggests, the Henderson fruit-dove feeds on a variety of fruits. Its restriction to a single island makes this colourful species vulnerable to extinction.

 

The HendersoHenderson reed-warblern reed-warbler is another bird species unique to Henderson Island. Like all of the island’s species, it is vulnerable to any further introductions of mammalian predators, such as the black rat (Rattus rattus).

 

Also known Henderson lorikeetas Stephen’s lorikeet, the endemic Henderson lorikeet, along with Henderson Island’s other bird species, is vulnerable to the introduction of avian diseases, such as avian malaria and pox.

 

To find out more about the planned rat eradication programme on Henderson Island, see:

For more information on conservation in the Pitcairn Islands, see:

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