Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Lousy condors

photo by Christian Mehlführer
The condor is a rousing conservation success story: when less than 30 of the birds existed in the mid-1980s, the last wild ones were captured. Through a breeding program, the condor population has grown to nearly 400, and over 200 condors have been released to live in the wild.

But here's a funny side effect of our having averted the imminent extinction of the largest flying bird in North America: we killed off every last Colpocephalum californicicondor lousewhen the birds were treated for parasites. Without much (or really, any) thought, we caused the louse to go extinct.

So what? That's exactly what scientists and others are grappling with--the question of which species we should try to save, and what are the effects of choosing not to save a speciesor choosing to exterminate it

Here are a few schools of thought in the we-should-save-them camp (pick yours):

~ intrinsic right to exist (just like tigers, whales and other "charismatic megafauna")

~ parasites may play an important role in the immune systems of their hosts (they co-evolved together and parasites may influence population numbers)

~ study of parasites can teach us important info about their hosts (bacteria helped trace human migration; whale "lice" revealed info about right whale populations)

~ potential to provide some value to humans (medicines yet to be discovered)

~  parasites may play important roles within the ecological community (As Murr Brewster's daddy pointed out, mosquitoes are frog food (Monday's nature quote)  

Parasites as endangered species. What do you think about that? 


  1. Arrrgh!  You tree-huggers get so convinced of your own omnipotence.  You think we can save the entire frisking world.  All the whales and snow leopards and baby seals and snail darters and black-footed ferrets.  News flash:  They're all gonna die and we can't do a thing about it.  Just nuke 'em to glass and clean 'em with windex!

    Ah,now that I have THAT rant out of my system, I think we probably should have saved a few condor lice just like we saved a few smallpox bacteria because you just never know when you might need 'em.   

  2. Much to think about.  I was especially interested in this post since I just returned from a trip to the Big Sur coast where I was privileged to see some of those condors---magnificent and scary they are.  Do we know for sure the condor louse is extinct?  Is it possible that they laid around in eggs somewhere else and might begin to hatch again now that the condors are coming back?

  3. So our species saves what we love, right? So if we want to raise awareness and counter this massive and rapid extinction, we  find the furry and the feathery, the ooh-and-ah gorgeous, the whalishly biggest and those with the biggest eyes, the friendliest to us, the smartest--all as poster children for the rest of their ecosystems, including the microfauna (and weeds?) with an abyssmal C.Q., i.e., Cuteness Quotient--like the condor louse. I personally didn't know any, but lice by our anthropocentric POV are not generally considered cute.
    Pat sets out possible reasons for some level of preservation of even the lousy louse. Another: Ectoparasites are sometimes picked off and eaten by some species.

    We do need to look beyond just the immediate convenience of our species if we're to maintain or restore the balance of nature--an aging term but a real need. It's a hard call, though, when dealing with pests of a species like the condor, with numbers still so close to the edge; and we want to give them every advantage.      

  4. Yeah, what Rosemary said!

    Getting people to care about a lousy louse? That's a tough sell...

  5. Here's the haiku for the Friday post

    Limitless heaven
    beckons to your mighty wings.
    No passengers, please.

  6. I'm with Roxie..I'd begrudgingly save a few lice.  Only because I think it warps the system to remove any part of it.  It could be like coyote eradication... when you remove one group, a rowdier, meaner group moves in.  So now that we've eliminated condor lice expect condor leeches with zombie virus to make an appearance.

    I'd even extend the same attitude to save a few larvae  of  mosquitoes. And even though  Scout explains they weigh zero on the food chain, I still curse their existence.
    Let frogs eat dragon flies.

  7. It starts getting complicated. Example: Dragonflies--along with other beneficial-to-humans insects, bats, et al.--eat the  mosquitoes and lots of agricultural pests. If such animals go away, other human pressure for  pest elimination from farmers, gardeners, and others will go in the direction of more and more insecticides, which can kill beneficials, too, and which then become less and less effective, and ...  Well, we've already played out a lot of this scenario.

  8. I suppose anything is possible--scientists have been surprised before--but the belief is that condor lice lived nowhere but on condors. Since we captured every last condor, we apparently had every last condor louse as well. 

    Oooh, lucky you to have seen them in the wild! I'd love too. I remember reading that Lewis & Clark saw condors in the Columbia River Gorge--imagine that!

  9. Interesting..parasites may play important roles within the ecological community ..but I would say that they do having co-evolved.....but that is my gut reaction

  10. Have you read "Parasite Rex"? A fabulous account of all sorts of "good"
    and "bad" parasites (from the human point of view). They do a lot of
    good even if sometimes we think they're loathesome.  For me the fascination over comes the "creepy" factor.

  11. And then there's hookworm therapy, which some folks say cures severe allergies:

  12. Smallpox is a microbial parasite. I don't hear anyone morn for its loss. The world biome seems to be persevering without its presence. The notion that condor lice somehow had a value all their own is an infection of absurdism among naturalists.