As vice president of animal care at Lincoln Park Zoo, I’m used to thinking about lots of different animals representing a wide variety of species during the day. For the next 10 days though, I’m concentrating all my efforts on one critically endangered species—Guam rails.
A critically endangered Guam rail ready for release on Cocos Island. The radio transmitter on its back will let conservation scientists monitor the reintroduction.
For the last 11 years I’ve been the Species Survival Plan® (SSP) coordinator for this species for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). I work to coordinate the Guam rails in North American zoos and partner with the biologists trying to save this species on Guam.
Guam rails were extirpated from the wild in the mid-1980s due to the brown tree snake, which is an introduced species on the island. In the early 1970s some reports estimated there were approximately 100,000 rails living on Guam. However by the mid-1980s, when the last remaining birds were caught up and brought into captivity, there were only a handful left. In fact, all the Guam rails left in the world are descended from 10 individuals.
Vice President of Animal Care Megan Ross, Ph.D., Joe Barkowski, curator of birds at Sedgwick County Zoo, and representatives from the Guam Division of Aquatics and Wildlife Resources prepare to release 10 Guam rails on Cocos Island. Megan is coordinator for the Guam Rail Species Survival Plan® and Joe is vice chair.
After breeding up the numbers of individuals, the biologists who work for the Guam Division of Aquatics and Wildlife Resources (DAWR) have been doing releases of Guam rails for more than 15 years. These releases have been an effort to create a self-sustaining population of wild rails, but we are still far from our end target.
On Wednesday, August 1, I was able to participate in a release for the first time. The release was on a very small island just off the southern tip of Guam: Cocos Island. This was only the second release ever at that location.
As SSP coordinator for the species, I’ve discussed these releases with staff on Guam and at the Lincoln Park Zoo-hosted AZA Population Management Center for years. But I will say that I wasn’t prepared for how amazing it was to hold one of these birds and release it. Even though I’d only been on Guam for less than 12 hours—and was quite jet lagged from my 24 hours of travel the previous day—I was overjoyed to watch those rails run away from us and even start to forage within seconds of the release.
Megan readies a Guam rail for release. As coordinator of the Guam Rail Species Survival Plan®, Megan helps zoos throughout the Association of Zoos and Aquarium manage the population, which is extinct on Guam.
Each of the 10 birds we released was outfitted with a radio transmitter and will be monitored daily by the Guam DAWR staff. Seven of these birds were bred at a facility here on Guam, and three of them came from AZA-accredited zoos. There's lots more to do to have a chance at bringing this species back from the brink of extinction. But right now it feels really nice to know there are 10 more rails out in the wild and that I played a role in that.
Megan Ross, Ph.D., is vice president of animal care at Lincoln Park Zoo and coordinator of the Guam Rail Species Survival Plan®.