Food for sex

18 03 2013
Quercus_KakFeed Photo
Kakapo are unique among the ~ 400 parrot species (Psittaciformes) for being flightless, nocturnal and extremely long-lived (up to 100 years!). Additionally, they are herbivorous (seeds, fruits, polen, plants), males can weigh up to 2-4 kg (40% heavier than females), and females lay their eggs on the ground or cavities – i.e., 3 eggs in a single clutch annually, although 2 clutches might occur if the nest fails at the beginning of the reproductive season or if the eggs are taken for artificial incubation.Native to New Zealand, kakapo once inhabited the subalpine fringes of forest and scrub. Polynesians (1000 years ago) and Europeans (mostly in the XIX Century) arrived in the archipelago accompanied by dogs, cats, rats and mustelids that cornered kakapo populations in the Fiordland region (south-west of the South Island) where it was declared extinct in 1989. In 1977, a population of some 200 individuals was found on Stewart Island - this population was already in decline to the claws and jaws of feral cats. By the 1980s, the failure of captive breeding programs prompted the transfer of 60 individuals from Steward to carnivore-free islands. The global (known) population ‘rocketed’ from 50 individuals in 1999 to 126 in the 2012 censuses and, consequently, the kakapo’s IUCN status changed in 2000 from ‘Extinct in the Wild’ to ‘Critically Endangered’. Under the management of the Kakapo Recovery Programme, kakapo are now present on the islands of CodfishAnchor and Little Barrier.

Inbreeding, system shocks caused by fire or cyclones (for example), or demographic stochasticity (by which two or more outcomes are possible) such as how many males and females will be born in a single year, are all factors that threaten the persistence of small and fragmented populations. They can, however, be reverted by conservation actions.

If you have ever taken dancing classes, you will be familiar with the scarcity of male partners and how this can jeopardize group learning. When reproduction, rather than salsa pirouettes, is at stake, a biased sex ratio can compromise the persistence of species. For instance, when females are unable to find males (or vice versa), fertility rates can collapse as a result – a well-known cause of an Allee effect (1). Curiously, natural selection can promote such bias by favouring a species’ investment in litters dominated by one of the two genders. The evolutionary formulation of such scenario is that females can adjust the sex ratio of their offspring depending on the amount of available resources (2) – see contrasting cross-taxa studies on this subject (3-5). Thus, when resources abound (e.g., food), mothers can afford the offspring’s gender requiring more resources to reach adulthood or once adulthood is reached, is less likely to reproduce successfully (6). This predisposition to one gender or another can be key to the conservation of endangered species (7).

The kakapo case

At the end of the 1990s, the New Zealand Department of Conservation placed dispensers of supplementary food in the territories of some kakapo (a rather enormous, flightless parrot Strigops habroptilus) to encourage their reproduction. Back then, only 60 individuals were left of the entire species . Unfortunately, those females with access to the supplemental food conceived 67% of male chicks (so exacerbating the fact that kakapo populations are naturally male-biased), while those females without extra feeding had 71% of female chicks (8). Something wasn’t working. Read the rest of this entry »

Individuals a population to conserve make

28 11 2012
Unique in its genus, the saiga antelope inhabits the steppes and semi-desert environments in two sub-species split between Kazakhstan (Saiga tatarica tatarica, ~ 80% of the individuals) and Mongolia (Saiga tatarica mongolica). Locals hunt them for their meat and the (attributed) medicinal properties of male horns. Like many ungulates, the population is sensitive to winter severity and summer drought (which signal seasonal migrations of herds up to 1000 individuals). But illegal poaching has reduced the species from > 1 million in the 1970s to ~ 50000 currently (see RT video). The species has gone extinct in China and Ukraine, and has been IUCN “Critically Endangered” from 2002. The photo shows a male in The Centre for Wild Animals, Kalmykia, Russia (courtesy of Pavel Sorokin).

In a planet approaching 7 billion people, individual identity for most of us goes largely unnoticed by the rest. However, individuals are important because each can promote changes at different scales of social organisation, from families through to associations, suburbs and countries. This is not only true for the human species, but for any species (1).

It is less than two decades since many ecologists started pondering the ways of applying the understanding of how individuals behave to the conservation of species (2-9), which some now refer to as ‘conservation behaviour’ (10, 11). The nexus seems straightforward. The decisions a bear or a shrimp make daily to feed, mate, move or shelter (i.e., their behaviour) affect their fitness (survival + fertility). Therefore, the sum of those decisions across all individuals in a population or species matters to the core themes handled by conservation biology for ensuring long-term population viability (12), i.e., counteracting anthropogenic impacts, and (with the distinction introduced by Cawley, 13) reversing population decline and avoiding population extinction.

To use behaviour in conservation implies that we can modify the behaviour of individuals to their own benefit (and mostly, to the species’ benefit) or define behavioural metrics that can be used as indicators of population threats. A main research area dealing with behavioural modification is that of anti-predator training of captive individuals prior to re-introduction. Laden with nuances, those training programs have yielded contrasting results across species, and have only tested a few instances of ‘success’ after release into the wild (14). For example, captive black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) exposed to stuffed hawks, caged ferrets and rattlesnakes had higher post-release survival than untrained individuals in the grasslands of the North American Great Plains (15). A clear example of a threat metric is aberrant behaviour triggered by hunting. Eleanor Milner-Gulland et al. (16) have reported a 46 % reduction in fertility rates in the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) in Russia from 1993-2002. This species forms harems consisting of one alpha male and 12 to 30 females. Local communities have long hunted this species, but illegal poaching for horned males from the early 1990s (17) ultimately led to harems with a female surplus (with an average sex ratio up to 100 females per male!). In them, only a few dominant females seem to reproduce because they engage in aggressive displays that dissuade other females from accessing the males. Read the rest of this entry »


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