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Madagascar bird driven to extinction by invasive fish

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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A bird from the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar called the Alaotra grebe (Tachybaptus rufolavatus ) has been declared extinct by conservation group BirdLife International. BirdLife contributed to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species with a major update on the world’s bird species, which was released on Wednesday.

The grebe, previously found only on Lake Alaotra in eastern Madagascar, was driven to extinction in part by the introduction of snakehead murrel, a carnivorous fish, to the area. Fishermen’s modern nylon gillnets, which caught and drowned the birds, also contributed to their demise. The bird was incapable of long flights, so it had a limited range and was vulnerable to attack.

BirdLife’s data counts 10,027 known bird species. With the grebe, 132 of those species are now listed as extinct, whereas another four are listed as extinct in the wild (meaning they only exist in captivity). On the Red List scale, 190 bird species are classified as critically endangered, 372 endangered, 678 vulnerable and 838 near threatened, meaning their situation could change easily.

One species making the critically endangered list for the first time this year is Cuba’s Zapata rail (Cyanolimnas cerverai), which is also at risk from introduced species—in this case mongooses and catfish. (The Zapata rail was first discovered by ornithologist James Bond, whose name author Ian Fleming appropriated for his famous British spy.)

There are a few potential bright spots on BirdLife’s list: The Azores bullfinch (Pyrrhula murina ), previously listed as critically endangered, has benefited from conservation work to restore natural vegetation on its home of São Miguel Island, and populations have increased enough for it be bumped up to endangered on the Red List.

But the organization cautions that many bird species are at risk due to shrinking wetlands around the globe. “Wetlands are fragile environments, easily disturbed or polluted, but essential not only for birds and other biodiversity but also for millions of people around the world as a source of water and food,” Stuart Butchart, BirdLife’s global research and indicators coordinator, said in a prepared statement.

Image: Alaotra Grebe by Chris Rose. Courtesy of BirdLife International





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  1. 1. dbtinc 9:32 am 05/27/2010

    Apparently the fish did not read the environmental protection and endangered species list. It would be more convenient to blame humanity for this act of evolution.

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  2. 2. Abeceedeee 1:23 pm 05/27/2010

    And who introduced the snakehead murrel to the area?

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  3. 3. wTommyB 8:29 pm 07/11/2010

    I always thought Scientific American was an excellent publication, until your recent article on the demise of the Alaotra grebe of Madagascar. It shows your magazine has been infected by the same problems that’ have been polluting science as a whole, i. e. shabby investigative reporting, arrogance, propaganda, etc. In your article you blamed the Snakehead fish for the extinction of the Alaotra grebe; however you can find a number of articles using almost the same language except blaming alien fish, bass fish, or alien fish and bass fish. Most articles include nets and some include the destruction of habitat primarily grasses in and around the lake as being culpable in the extinction of the grebe. The report from Birdlife which you quote only says, “carnivorous fish.” One article quoting the results of its study states quote, “A principal threat facing the remaining Alaotran wetland is anthropogenic burning of the vegetation during the dry season . . . Seventy-eight percent of interviewees stated wetland burning was performed only or mainly to gather an introduced fish, the Asian snakehead Channa maculate.” In fact if one looks at a study done on the extinction of the giant grebe on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, resembles the Alaotra grebe circumstance the cutting of grasses and other habitat loss with the introduction of the Bass.
    All the above possibilities are just speculation as to if any or all of them are responsible for the extinction of the grebe. There exist other potential causes to the extinction including some causes may continue to be unknown however your publication is proclaiming fact where none is known and that is not science. This is seen in a number of subjects from GOD to evolution to global warming or cooling (depending on the prevailing temperatures at the time).
    The Panda does not know his thumbs are not perfect, nor did the extinct killer rat kangaroo know his teeth were not perfect. These decisions were made by individual men who received their information about what was perfect by looking at animals that the men judged as perfect. These “facts” are assumptions. A real fact is animals are made different and that is why we have different animals.
    The Blotched Snakehead (Channa maculata) in Madagascar is the same fish imported into Hawaii before1900. Decades later Bass, Catfish, Bluegill and a number of cichlid were established. Currently the native flightless Hawaiian rail though endangered still exists.
    So many people consider themselves scientists while engaging in propaganda, plagiarism, falsely manipulating data, hiding facts and lying. Science is about the search for the truth. Following “the means justify the ends” spoiled toddler philosophy of the secretary and pseudo-philosopher Karl Marx are attempts to get one’s way despite the truth. People who manipulate the truth are not scientists no matter how many degrees that may have.
    Tommy Blansett

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