An endangered animal road to recovery
The whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America. An adult stands nearly 5 feet tall, with a wingspan of over 7 feet! Unfortunately, it is rare to catch a glimpse of one of these majestic birds today. The species almost became extinct, with a low of only 15 individuals in the 1940s. The good news is that conservation efforts have helped the endangered animal make a comeback, and today there are about 600 whooping cranes. Nearly half of these birds are in captivity or reintroduced/experimental populations. The other half occur in a single migratory wild population. This wild population spends the winter in or near the Texas Gulf Coast, and spends their breeding season in northern Canada.
It is encouraging that the whooping cranes have made such a comeback over the past 70 years. The bad news is that the population is not growing as quickly as wildlife biologists expected. We are still a long way to a decent recovery. As with most species of conservation concern, recovery relies on habitat management, captive breeding, legislation, conservation organizations, and research. Zoo and wildlife veterinarians play the part of investigating how diseases may impact the health of the wild population of whoopers.
Understanding the health of the whooping crane population
We do know that whooping cranes, like other avian species, contract parasites that cause diseases. Adult parasites that may live in various organs or cavities of the cranes will lay eggs that shed in the crane’s feces. To study the parasites, a vast number of fecal samples required analysis. But collecting the waste without disturbing the wild birds was a challenge. Using remote cameras, though, researchers could identify periods of high activity. They could then go to those locations and collect the samples for analysis back at the laboratory.
Unfortunately, the eggs of many parasites look very similar, and it's hard to tell which parasites are infecting the cranes using microscopy alone. To make up for that, further analysis using DNA "barcoding" revealed the particular parasite. Then, researchers compared the eggs to those found in a similar crane species - the sandhill crane. These findings and technical advances will help the populations of both species of cranes, as well as many other bird species.
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YOU CAN HELP PREVENT THE WHOOPING CRANE FROM BECOMING EXTINCT!