To mark Endangered Species Day on Friday 21 May 2021, staff and volunteers at the Museum of Zoology have been writing about the endangered species on display in the galleries that hold stories important to them. Come and explore these amazing animals with us.
Orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus
As Curator of Insects, selecting orangutans to write about might seem an odd choice. The reason is that these species, more than any other, remind me of carrying out my own research in tropical rainforests for the first time.
My PhD was based in Malaysian Borneo, in Danum Valley Conservation Area, a stronghold of one of the three recognised species of orangutan. Like nearly everyone else who visited, I was desperate to see one, but the first few months went by without a glimpse. One day, I was walking back along one of the forest trails, having set some insect traps, when I rounded a corner and came face to face with a large male. He was standing on a loop of vine at about head height and holding on with both hands; a bit like a trapeze artist getting ready to perform. The similarity ended there though, because he was far from elegant in his movements, starting noisily in surprise and laboriously pulling himself higher up. Once he was well above me, he stopped and stared down, and I looked up at him. The things I can remember most clearly were the sunlight behind him, making his ginger hair stand out like flames around his bulky body, and his sympathetic brown eyes looking straight at me. We stayed there for about ten minutes before he slowly moved away, deeper into the forest. It wasn’t until later that I realised what was slightly eerie about the encounter; he had made eye contact.
Experiences like this emphasise the evolutionary connection we have with other species, particularly close relatives like the great apes. Yet, we tend to think of humans as being somehow different or unconnected to the natural world. The three species of orang-utan are all endangered or critically endangered, primarily due to continued loss of their rainforest habitat. If species like this were to go extinct, not only would we lose something beautiful and unique, but we would also widen the evolutionary divide between ourselves and other species. For me, orangutans are important, both because of my memory of first seeing one, but also because of the connection they represent between humans and the other species that share our planet.
Kakapo, Strigops habroptilus
Hebe Halstead, Museum Volunteer
My favourite animal to talk to about in the museum is the kakapo. I like to talk about them because they are universally cute and a rare story with a (kind of) happy ending. The kakapo is the world’s heaviest parrot, it can’t fly, and it lives on four islands off the coast of New Zealand. They only come out at night and maybe one of the longest living birds – with a reported lifespan of up to 100 years. The kakapo is part of Maori culture, where their irregular breeding cycles led to the belief that they have the ability to predict future events. Mauri people also used their feathers for decorations, ate their meat and kept some as pets.
Kakapos are also incredibly friendly – some people describe them as being “more like dog than bird” and will run up to greet people. Their friendliness stems from how they evolved with no natural predators. Kakapos once lived all across New Zealand. However, the introduction of cats, rats and disease made their numbers plummet into being critically endangered with only 51 birds remaining. Kakapos are now isolated to a few remote islands where they are extensively monitored, and their numbers have now grown to over 200. It may be a bit of a dire situation still, but it is so nice being able to tell people about some positive news.
Tasmanian Devil, Sarcophilus harrisii
For the past ten years or so, I’ve been volunteering on fieldwork with the University of Tasmania to help with their efforts to understand a horrific contagious cancer that was first detected in Tasmanian devils in 1996 – it typically appears as tumours around the mouth, and nearly all affected devils die within a year of contracting the disease. Since then, the population has crashed by more than 80% as a result of Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), meaning that the world’s largest surviving marsupial carnivore is now sadly considered Endangered.
Devils regularly bite other devils, particularly when they are gathered around an animal carcass to feed (devils are scavengers), or when mating. If a devil with DFTD bites another devil, cancer cells can rub off on the second devil, and start to grow into new tumours. Contagious cancers like this are extremely rare in nature.
In Tasmania, we temporarily catch devils in order to check their health, and take small blood and tissue samples before releasing them again. As the researchers keep visiting the same sites regularly, individual devils can be followed over time (they all are given identifying microchips). Long-term studies like those being run by the University of Tasmania are vital for being able to understand this disease. Numbers are still declining, but the researchers have found that the devils are starting to show signs of fighting back: we have caught devils whose tumours have shrunk over time, and who are showing some other forms of immune response. It is now hoped that DFTD should not cause devils to become extinct.
Gharial, Gavialis gangeticus
Andrew Simpson, Museum Volunteer
In the reptile section of the Museum of Zoology is a unique skull. It is long and narrow, as if someone took a Crocodile head and stretched it out like putty! This skull belongs to a gharial. Gharials grow up to 6.5 metres long (in the largest males) but, despite their size, they are shy and not known to attack people. Their unusually long jaws are perfect for hunting fish, using sensory cells in their snout tips to detect them, before sweeping the jaws sideways to grab them. Gharial skulls have another unusual feature, a bulbous structure located on the snout tip. This is called a “ghara” (named after a similar looking traditional pot from India). Only males possess these, and they are used to make buzzing noises and to blow bubbles, all part of attracting mates. Gharials used to live across a range of rivers, from Pakistan, to Bangladesh, but due to hunting, habitat destruction and pollution they are now critically endangered, and their range has reduced to only three rivers in India, and one river in Nepal.
To me, gharials are a reminder that crocodylomorphs (the group containing crocodilians and their relatives) are an incredibly diverse group. They have existed for 230 million years and have ranged from armoured burrowers to marine predators. They survived asteroid impacts and ice ages, but their greatest threat is now humanity, and it is only humans who have the power to prevent the extinction of many crocodilian species, including the gharial.
Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans
Dr Michael Brooke, Strickland Curator of Birds
Wandering albatrosses are justly renowned for their ability to glide for hours, with barely a wing flap, over the towering waves of the Southern Ocean. These magnificent birds can treat a howling gale in the Roaring Forties as a mere breeze in the park. But now Wanderers and many other albatross species are classified as threatened, particularly because of the damage wrought by longline fishing operations. As the line is streamed to the rear of the fishing vessel, so birds are attracted by the baited hooks. Once hooked, the birds are pulled beneath the water and drowned.
Perhaps my own most vivid wanderer memories are actually from onshore. At Marion Island some 1500 miles south-east of Cape Town I remember a young Wandering Albatross which, one evening, marched deliberately up a small hill. On reaching the top, the bird looked down a nasty cliff. It looked outward to sea and to the western horizon. It flapped its wings diffidently as if hoping that they would not generate sufficient lift for flight. This was not the case, so it folded them while summoning a little more courage. Then it spread its three-metre wings, took a deep breath and, perhaps aware of my scrutiny, leapt off the edge. There was no problem. The novice levelled off above the sea and, very literally, flew off into the sunset.
Marion was nothing if not windy. At the extreme, gusts reached 200 km/hr. With no shelter the incubating wanderers, buffeted atop their pedestal nests of grass and moss, had to react. Facing into wind, they stretched their necks over the lip of the pedestal to maximize streamlining and frankly resembled a dead goose more than a master of the oceans.
As is true of most Endangered species highlighted in the Museum, only a minority of our visitors will ever see Wandering Albatrosses in the wild, but surely everybody wants to know they are out there this year and forever.
Sonoran Pronghorn, Antilocapra americana sonoriensis
Perhaps the most endangered animal I have encountered is actually a subspecies – the Sonoran pronghorn.
Whilst often referred to as an antelope they’re actually more closely related to giraffes and okapi (and are displayed as such in the museum gallery!), the pronghorn ranges across central and western North America. They are the fastest land animal in the western hemisphere – far faster than any potential predators – some have suggested they evolved as such to evade the North American cheetah, extinct for over 12,000 years.
The species as a whole suffered decline in the early twentieth century but has since recovered. Yet as recently as 2002, after a major drought, the Sonoran pronghorn numbered only 21 individuals. Thanks to a captive breeding programme there are closer to 300 in the wild today. Slightly smaller and adapted to a desert environment than the species generally, they are difficult enough to see within their wide range, but I have frequently spotted them since I started visiting Arizona 12 years ago.
Often they are in small herds of three to six individuals and don’t stick around for anything other than a quick glimpse over their shoulder as they melt away into the background. It’s sobering to think that they could so easily have melted into the background for good. Threats still remain – for example border walls that damage and prevent access to habitat and water sources.
On my last visit I was lucky enough to see one calmly standing near the roadside, I doubt I’ll ever get to within 50 metres of one again! Perhaps if numbers keep increasing I’ll reach a point where I don’t have to excitedly ask whomever is driving to slow down whilst I grab my camera.
It’s also worth remembering that even if a species is abundant, it may comprise of isolated, threatened yet wonderful populations like the Sonoran pronghorn.
Okapi, Okapia johnstoni
An endangered species that is particularly special to me is the okapi – a close relative of the giraffe that lives in forest habitat, and is endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. It is estimated that wild populations have declined by over 40% since the early 1990s, largely as a result of forest logging and bushmeat hunting, and the species is currently listed as “Endangered” on the IUCN Red List. I first learned about okapis as part of a rainforest themed “Happy Families” style card game that I enjoyed playing as a child. They appeared alongside much more familiar animals such as tigers, leopards, and tree frogs, and the not so familiar – but still very believable – macaws, gibbons, and lemurs. But the okapi – with its unusual stripes and name – seemed like it could be a make-believe animal, and I remember asking my parents if they really existed. We then discussed where they lived and what their habitat was like. They were already endangered over 25 years ago when I was growing up, and now they are even more so. In the game, there was a ‘logger’ card showing a man with an axe that had the power to wipe out all the animal cards that you had collected. I really hope that ongoing conservation steps, including efforts led by the Okapi Conservation Trust, can stop this wipe out happening in real life, and protect this wonderfully unique animal from extinction.
Learning about Darwin and evolution, the example you come across again and again is the Galapagos finches, with their beaks adapted to different diets. That such dramatically different beaks shapes evolved from a single ancestral species is amazing, but fade into the background when compared to the beaks of Hawaiian honeycreepers. Here we have another group of birds descended from a single finch species on islands in the middle of the Pacific ocean. But where it is estimated that the Galapagos finches diverged from their nearest common ancestor around 2-3 million years ago, the Hawaiian honeycreepers have had an estimated 5.7 million years to evolve. There are many more species (at least 56 species of Hawaiian honeycreeper compared to around 15 Galapagos finches), and the range of beak shapes is truly extraordinary – from long slender bills for drinking nectar, to deep finch-like bills, short bills for catching insects, and beaks specially adapted for gouging holes in tree branches and plucking beetle grubs from under the bark.
It was only when developing the displays for the Lower Gallery of the Museum that I began to truly appreciate these wonderful birds. Their vibrant feathers combined with the diversity of beak shapes, I was entranced. But the story of these birds is not a happy one. More than half of the 50 or so species are now extinct, and of the species that are still extant (i.e. still found alive), only two are not endangered or vulnerable. When Europeans arrived in Hawaii, they changed habitats and brought predators that the honeycreepers had not previously encountered. They also introduced avian malaria, a disease that the native honeycreepers had not been exposed to before, so hadn’t the immune defenses needed to keep it at bay. Conservation work it taking place to protect the honeycreeper species we still have left. I hope this is successful, as the world would be a much poorer place without these colourful creatures.
Find out more about Hawaiian honeycreepers with our Nature Classroom post on bird beaks and evolution.
Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas
I love oceans. When volunteering (pre-pandemic) the turtle skull was my favourite handling specimen. So very expressive and mysterious. Hard to work out what it is, looking for evidence together, the biggest clue is the coral display behind me with a turtle inside. It breaks my heart that for some populations time is running out unless we actively help. I encourage everyone to be “turtletastic not plastic”.
Green turtles swim in tropical waters, travelling large distances between feeding grounds and hatching beaches. As herbivores eating seagrasses and algae, their name comes from the colour of their fat resulting from this diet. Their shells are actually dark brown, or olive.
Hazards endangering turtles are: accidental capture in fishing nets, boat-strikes and human consumption. Nesting site predation, habitat destruction and pollution affect numbers. Eating marine debris mistaken for food and getting caught in ocean waste has deadly results. Climate change causes beach flooding and nest destruction. Temperature changes affect birth numbers of males and females.
Beach monitoring protects eggs and adults and keeps coasts unspoiled by litter and unpolluted. Creating protected ocean areas with scientists researching turtles helps them. Conservationists work with fishing industries with some success to reduce accidental turtle capture.
We can: reduce plastic use. Stop waste reaching seas. Clean up beaches. Get involved in turtle conservation. Keep informed about oceans. Use environmentally friendly, non-polluting products. Tackle climate change by using power and cars only when really needed. Like me, please encourage others to do this too. “Turtletastic not plastic”.
Ethiopian bush-crow, Zavattariornis stresemanni
When looking at the magpies on display in the British birds section of the museum, I am always reminded of a similar species. One which is familiar to me, but unknown to many, and is perhaps one of the most endangered birds in the world.
The Ethiopian Bush-crow is a relative of the crows, jays and magpies found in the UK, but is a lot, lot rarer. It is only found in a small region of southern Ethiopia, about 4,000 km2 in size (that’s smaller than Norfolk). Within this small area, it is relatively common, but it is never seen outside of it.
Bush-crows eat a wide range of insects, and even the eggs of other birds, and happily forage around the goat and cattle herds owned by local people. They nest high in common Acacia trees, and live in noisy family groups. But what makes them rare and endangered is the fact that they cannot survive at high temperatures.
When the mercury gets above around 30oC, Bush-crow’s really struggle to keep cool. They have to spend more time in the shade, and pant to try and lose heat. This means that they struggle to feed, and in extreme cases cannot get enough food. Therefore, in places that are consistently this warm, Bush-crows cannot survive.
And this presents a problem. Climate change is already threatening the Bush-crow’s range. The edges are getting warmer, and by 2050 most of the area where the Bush-crow is currently found is likely to become too hot for the species to survive. With this impending doom, the Ethiopian Bush-crow must surely be one of the most endangered birds in the world.