Endangered condors can reproduce without mating, study shows

ESCONDIDO, Calif., Nov. 2 (Reuters) – California condors, a critically endangered species, can reproduce without mating, according to a study by conservation scientists at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

During a routine analysis of biological samples of California condors in the zoo’s breeding program, scientists found that two condor chicks had hatched from unfertilized eggs.

“To be honest, it was a big surprise. We weren’t expecting to find any of this,” said Cynthia Steiner, associate director of the alliance‘s conservation research division.

Steiner is also the co-author of the study published last week in the Journal of Heredity, the official publication of the American Genetic Association.

Scientists have confirmed that each condor chick is genetically related to its mother, but no bird is genetically related to a male. The two birds represent the first two cases of asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis, to be confirmed in the California condor species, the zoo said.

“This is a very rare find because it is not well known in birds in general. It is therefore known in other species, in reptiles and fish, but in birds it is very rare, especially in wild species, ”Steiner said.

A California condor named Molloko is seen at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park after scientists from the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance discovered that two California condor chicks were born from unfertilized eggs, in Escondido, California, USA , November 2, 2021. REUTERS / Mike Blake

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Steiner said the find was particularly surprising, as the two female birds were continuously housed with fertile male partners and had previously produced chicks when paired with a male. Asexual reproduction has never been confirmed before in any avian species where the female bird had access to a mate.

“At one point, they decided, for some reason, to go into asexual reproduction as well,” Steiner said.

Both chicks were underweight when they hatched, Steiner said. One was released back into the wild and died at the age of two in 2003, while the other survived eight years in captivity and died in 2017.

The California condor is one of the rarest bird species in the world, but its population is increasing. Steiner said there are now around 500 living condors, around 200 in captivity and 300 in the wild.

She hopes to continue studying asexual reproduction in birds to see if this continues now that there are more condors in the wild.

“We just want to know how often this phenomenon could occur now that the population is increasing instead of contracting like it did in the 1980s,” she said.

Reporting by Alan Devall; Editing by Karishma Singh and Ana Nicolaci da Costa

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