July 31, 2021

The winning return of the California condor

Dn our rough world, where we never stop abusing nature, here is finally a beautiful story. A great story of species conservation and a great story of science. Forty years after coming close to disappearance, the California condor is back. More than 300 of these majestic birds, with a wingspan of 2.90 meters, the largest on the North American continent, fly again in the skies of the United States, and more than 200 others, bred in captivity, are preparing to join them. An emblematic success of the reintroduction programs currently conducted in the country. Thursday May 13, 2021, the newspaper Current Biology added a pleasing clarification: the species seems to have emerged genetically almost unscathed from the ordeal it has undergone.

The decline of the great scavenger seemed however to be part of a history as old as it was fatal. Long present in mass throughout the national territory, the cousin of the Andean condor had suffered a first shock with the disappearance of the American megafauna, about 10,000 years ago. The species had adapted, gathered in the West, drawing its food from the carcasses of cattle and game abandoned by humans. But she had left some feathers there.

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In the XIXe century, with the arrival of the pioneers, and especially in the XXe century, the fall is accelerating. Hunting, egg collection, use of poisoned bait, fragmentation of breeding grounds, the population is collapsing. In 1965, the species was officially classified as endangered, and protected. But the poachers continue their work. Above all, the ingestion of lead shot causes a terrible epidemic of lead poisoning. In 1982, twenty-two individuals remained alive, two of them in captivity. “After long discussions we decided to capture them all, says Cynthia Steiner, deputy director of the Genetic Conservation Laboratory at the San Diego Zoo. Fortunately, captive breeding has been remarkably successful, we started reintroducing it in 1992. ” And the condor passed the obstacle.

A twist in terms of evolution

With 525 birds officially recorded in early 2020, a major protection program that continues, cooperation established with hunting companies to replace lead ammunition with tungsten, the species seems indeed saved. But what state is she in exactly? This was the challenge of the research conducted by an international team of nine institutions, including the Universities of California at San Francisco (UCSF), Berkeley, and the San Diego Zoo.

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