Feathering The Nest – Flying Solo When Dad’s Not Home (And Sometimes When He Is)

Photo taken by Y S and shared through Unsplash

It’s fitting that my first post is based on this National Geographic article and this YahooNews article, given that Stefanie Powers is my blog’s muse and it makes me think of Hart to Hart. In the 1980 episode Does She Or Doesn’t She Jennifer is primping at her salon to prepare for a “Save The Condor” benefit when a lunatic walks in and fires a gun. The fundraiser is only briefly mentioned twice in the episode, but it shows that the plight of the condor has been a decades long struggle. Back then, there were only 22 condors in existence, and today, the number has increased to about 500 thanks to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s captive breeding programs. To successfully reintegrate the condors into the wild, scientists carefully study the DNA of their breed stock to be certain that they are genetically diverse enough to reproduce (oftentimes breeding from a narrow gene pool of only a few dozen individuals creates mutations that can shorten lifespans). Oliver Ryder, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Director of Conservation Genetics and Cynthia Steiner, the Associate Director of the conservation research division recently authored a paper about one such study that defied all logic— the genetic makeup of two of their male juveniles, known as SB260 and SB517 (since I’m known for naming animals, I’ll call them Peanut and Scooter), was baffling. They had no DNA from the bird believed to be their father!

The ability for females to asexually reproduce is called facultative parthenogenesis, and if you have watched the original Jurassic Park, you remember this as a plot point for the story. Dr. Hammond felt that Jurassic Park was safe because he only cloned female dinosaurs, but as Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) so calmly points out when an egg clutch is found, leaving the scientists in a baffled panic, “life finds a way.” Parthenogenesis is rare in birds, though it has been observed in turkeys, chickens and Chinese quail that have no access to males, but it’s the lack of access that is the trigger. Peanut and Scooter’s mother had mated successfully before they were hatched, and after, so why on earth did parthenogenesis kick in in this case? Therein lies the rub. Scientists have no idea why this would happen in a healthy female with access to several males; sadly, as is the case in most instances of parthenogenesis, little Peanut didn’t make it to his second birthday and little Scooter died just before his eighth birthday. Condors generally have a 60-65 year lifespan, so these two special birds were still very young when they passed. Nobody can explain why this happened, though now it’s leaving scientists wondering if parthenogenesis has some biological function beyond keeping a species alive when access to males is restricted. In this case we just have to accept that Mother Nature will always find a way to keep us on our toes. She is certainly an unpredictable lady!

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