In Saving A Species, You Might Accidentally Doom It


The black robin is an endearing ball of beaked fluff, found only in the Chatham Islands off the eastern coast of New Zealand. By 1980, there were just five of them left.

They lived in a rocky outcrop about the size of a few city blocks. The precipitous cliffs kept them safe from the cats, stoats and rats that sailors had brought to the islands. But the high winds were too much for these small birds, and most of the survivors had died. With a single breeding pair left—Old Blue and Old Yellow—their future looked bleak.

Don Merton and a team of conservationists mounted a heroic effort to save them. They relocated the tiny population to larger islands and managed their reproduction over many years, transferring their eggs to foster parents for incubation. By 1989, there were 80 robins. By 1998, there were over 200. Once the world’s most endangered bird, the black robin became a flagship example of conservation success.

But it’s also an example of good intentions leading to unintended consequences.

In those early years, when the team was still carefully managing the birds, they noticed that many females laid their eggs on the rims of their nests, rather than the centre. Precarious positions aside, these “rim eggs” were never incubated and never hatched. With the species’ fate hanging in the balance, every egg was precious. The team repositioned the ones on the rims.

Without this move, it’s unclear if the species would have made its dramatic recovery. But it also saddled the robins with a difficult legacy.

Written By: Ed Yong
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  1. Surely better to have this beautiful little creature still with us than not though and the allele for rim laying is back down to 10% [hope I read that right]. New Zealand’s conservation teams have worked hard to reclaim small offshore islands back from rats, stoats and cats so it’s future is looking good. To think there were once only 5 individuals left on the planet is a remarkable success story.

  2. Another garbage title, thanks Nat Geo. Is anyone surprised that a limited gene pool produces off-spring with the same limited genes – wuff, wuff.

    How is saving ever dooming? Maybe; In saving Editors we may have doomed the English language, might work?

  3. Those ARE some of the cutest little birds ever…but what about all the species that are going extinct because nobody finds them cute? Species have evolved over millions of years along with other species in their ecosystems. In addition to the genetic problems discussed in this article, there is also the problem of selectively rescuing only a few aesthetically appealing species while ignoring others, such as plants and insects. The “saved” species may need those other species, as well as a particular environment or ecosystem, in order to survive in the wild.

  4. In reply to #3 by Sue Blue:

    cutest little birds…

    Dang cute! In this particular case, I think it was the combination of aesthetics, extreme low numbers, and maybe a touch of human guilt that led Tom Merton and his group to conserve the robins.

    appealing species while ignoring others…plants and insects

    I hope, and presume, there are any number of folk quietly working on these. Recently, protected status was given to a tiny, blind cave fish. It evolved in the cave / karst system in a certain Missouri county. But, the sensitive environment where it lives was not. Go figure!

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