Poop, Parasites, and Whooping Crane Conservation

August 10, 2015  |  by: Justine E. Hausheer, science writer for The Nature Conservancy

whooping crane
A whooping crane along the Texas coast. Photo © Kendal Larson/#sthash.22u3zsW0.dpuf

Miranda Bertram has a rare skill ⎯ she can identify whooping crane feces on sight.

She’s certainly had a lot of practice. A Ph.D. candidate at Texas A&M University, Bertram spent the last two winters tramping around Texas’s Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in search of whooping crane feces to research and document which parasites are present in the population, and if they could be affecting the recovery of this endangered species.

Untangling the Effects of Disease on Endangered Species

Whooping cranes are one of the most well-known endangered bird species in the United States. Habitat loss and hunting reduced their population to just 16 birds in 1941. In the 1970s scientists began captive breeding programs, where captive-raised cranes were eventually released back into the wild to bolster the population.

Today there are 308 wild whooping cranes in the Aransas population, which accounts for the the vast majority of wild whoopers, and they winter in just a few brackish marshes along a narrow strip of the Texas coast. The Aransas population is growing ⎯ 39 juveniles were counted in last winter’s survey ⎯ but whoopers still have a long way to go before the population can be considered stable.

“The population is definitely fragile,” says Bertram, “and at a point where it’s highly susceptible to disease or other catastrophic events.”

Knowing what diseases a species is susceptible to, and what affect those diseases have on a population is critical for conservation efforts.

Read the entire article here at Cool Green Science, The Science blog of The Nature Conservancy.

Interested in reading the entire “Abstract”? Click here. 

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