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Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

Island hoping: Japan breeding program aims to save rare albatross

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About 2,700 short-tailed albatrosses (Phoebastria albatrus) currently fly over the Pacific Ocean. The largest seabird in that area of the world, the short-tailed albatross almost went extinct 100 years ago after the birds were overhunted for their feathers. The species is much healthier now thanks to more than 50 years of conservation efforts, but it still only breeds on a few volcanic islands, making it incredibly vulnerable to being wiped out by a single bad weather system or other event. Now a breeding program not only aims to increase the short-tailed albatross population but also to allow the birds to spread their wings to other islands, according to a report from the Daily Yomiuri in Japan.

The project, led by the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology  and assisted by Japan's environment ministry, is working on multiple fronts: First, grass is being planted on Torishima Island, one of the birds' two breeding sites. The volcanic island is rocky and prone to landslides, so it is hoped that the plant life will help stabilize the ground under the ungainly birds' feet.

(The other short-tailed albatross breeding site is the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, which are officially controlled by Japan but contentiously claimed by China and Taiwan.)

Second, 10 albatross chicks were moved to "nearby" Mukojima Island, about 370 kilometers away, with the aim of creating a new breeding site. The birds there are raised in artificial nests, with a hand-fed diet of fish, squid, krill and vitamins. The site's appeal for the birds is enhanced by a solar-powered sound system that mimics the sounds of a regular albatross colony as well as a series of short-tailed albatross decoys, which make the baby birds feel as if they are still part of a flock.

Already two batches of young birds have left the island; they bear solar-powered satellite transmitters attached to their legs to enable migratory tracking. The hope is that they will return to Mukojima in a few years when they are ready to start breeding.

Yamashina personnel tested their plan by raising and releasing another albatross species that exhibit similar reproductive behavior. The black-footed albatross (P. nigripes ), like its short-tailed cousin, almost always returns to breed on the same island where it hatched. The test has already had its first success, as three of the nine black-footed albatross raised on the island have already returned. "This is a big step forward," Yamashina Deputy Director General Kiyoaki Ozaki told the Daily Yomiuri.

The short-tailed albatross is also known as Steller's albatross, named after naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who first discovered it. Steller also discovered and named the famed Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), a now-extinct species of manatee.

Photo: Short-tailed albatross, via Wikipedia

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

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