Planning a Return from Extinction

I recently had the opportunity to go to Guam to work with wildlife staff there to discuss strategies for the future of Guam rails. Guam rails, which are called ko’ko’ in Chamorros, are a small, brown, flightless ground bird. They’re extinct in their native habitat of Guam thank to the introduction of the brown tree snake.

This was my second trip to Guam to work with the folks there on this critically endangered species. The goals of the trip were to develop a plan for all rails for the coming year and discuss long-term future goals for the program.

When the last rails were collected from the wild in the mid-1980s, there were only a handful left. The surviving Guam rail population is all descended from 10 individuals.

For the last 11 years, I’ve been coordinator for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Guam Rail Species Survival Plan® (SSP). There are many challenges to managing this species, and many individuals make up the project team. During this trip to Guam I travelled with SSP vice coordinator Joe Barkowski, who worked for Sedgwick County Zoo (he moved to Tulsa Zoo right after this trip).


Joe and Megan pose with the Guam Division of Aquatics and Wildlife Resources team.

After being on Guam for less than 12 hours, Joe and I found ourselves driving down to the southern tip of the island with staff members from the Guam Division of Aquatics and Wildlife Resources (DAWR) to release a group of rails on the small island of Cocos, which is just off the southern tip of Guam. We released 10 birds that morning. Seven were from the DAWR captive-breeding facility and three were from AZA zoos.

Cocos Island is a very small island. Half the island has a resort on it and is privately owned, and the other half of the island is public property. The resort staff are very enthusiastic about sharing the island with the rails. In fact they had a PR campaign that exclaimed ko’ko’ for Cocos to celebrate the birds being released there for the first time last year. This was the second release on the island.


A poster on Cocos Island sharing the Guam rail conservation message.

There are issues with Cocos Island. While it features very dense habitat for the birds, it also has an introduced monitor lizard they’re trying to remove. Each rail was outfitted with a radio transmitter prior to release so Guam DAWR staff can monitor them afterward. In this dense foliage, radio transmitters are critical to being able to see where the rails are.


The dense habitat on Cocos Island helps shelter the rails.

Introduced monitor lizards can pose a threat to the rails on Cocos Island.

Radio transmitters help scientists track the rails as they make their way through the thick underbrush.

After the release we went back to the Guam DAWR headquarters, where we met with staff who work with rails. While releases are exciting, most of our time was spent doing computer work and discussing future plans in a conference room.


Megan and Joe plan the future of the population with Suzanne.

As part of our trip, Joe and I brought new population management software developed by Lincoln Park Zoo scientists. We shared it with Guam DAWR coordinator of bird programs Suzanne Medina, training her in its use. This will make it easier for Suzanne and me to coordinate population management efforts on Guam and at AZA zoos, with help from staff at the AZA Population Management Center, which is housed at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Megan Ross

Megan Ross, Ph.D., is vice president of animal care at Lincoln Park Zoo and coordinator of the Guam Rail Species Survival Plan®.

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