Reversing local extinction: scientists bring the northern bald ibis back to Europe after 300 years
The northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita), also called the hermit ibis or waldrapp, is a migratory bird. Once, the bald ibis lived in the Middle East, northern Africa and southern and central Europe, but due to hunting, loss of habitat and pesticide-use, the birds disappeared from most of these areas and is currently considered Critically Endangered. It became extinct in Europe 300 years ago; the bird is almost gone in Syria, with only a single individual recorded at the country's lone breeding site in 2013; and the only stronghold left is a small population of around 500 birds in Morocco. But now, a team of scientists from Austria is working to reestablish a self-sustaining, migratory population of bald ibis in Europe.
In 2002 Johannes Fritz, who had been a doctoral student in biology at the Konrad Lorenz Research Station in Austria, came up with the idea of taking northern bald ibises from zoos and imprinting them, in effect becoming their foster parent to teach them a new migratory route to Italy. After more than ten years of research and feasibility planning, the Austrian Waldrappteam, together with partners from Germany and Italy (the Parco Natura Viva Garda Zoological Park) received funding from the European Union for a Life+ Project to be held from 2014 to 2019. The aim of the project is to create a European population of at least 120 ibises that migrate autonomously from Germany to Italy.
Experiments conducted in the 1990s demonstrated that ibises raised in the zoos retain their migration instincts, but have no sense of which direction to fly. Because of this, Johannes Fritz decided to teach the ibises to migrate via a road to a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Oasis in the Tuscan town of Orbetello.
"The project started in 2002 and in 2003 the first migration led by humans failed. So the first group of northern bald ibises arrived in Tuscany in 2004," Nicoletta Perco, head of the Italian side of the project, explained to mongabay.com. Since then a total of seven migrations led by humans have been undertaken.
WWF Oasis Laguna di Orbetello, in Southern Tuscany is a lagoon with a favorable microclimate during winter because it is in front of an offshore island. Since various bird species winter here, ornithologists advised the team to choose this area for the human-led ibis migration. Northern bald ibis breed colonially, lay two-to-three eggs per nest and feed on insects and small animals.
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Northern bald ibis image via Shutterstock.