Neophron percnopterus majorensis

Vultures followed humans to the Canaries

December 16th, 2010

Fascinating article in BMC Evolutionary Biology on the role of humans in helping the expansion of the Egyptian Vulture (Alimoche in Spanish, guirre in the Canaries) and its remarkably fast evolution into a sub-species (Neophron percnopterus majorensis).

Archaeological remains show that first colonizers were Berber people from northern Africa who imported goats. This new and abundant food source could have allowed vultures to colonize, expand and adapt to the island environment. Our results suggest that anthropogenic environmental change can induce diversification and that this process may take place on an ecological time scale (less than 200 generations), even in the case of a long-lived species. Full article here

Found on Crónica Verde: Los buitres llegaron a Canarias siguiendo a los hombres y sus cabras

Wikipedia on the Canarian vulture (above photo not the Canarian sub-species)

  • N. p. majorensis, the Canarian Egyptian Vulture, the largest subspecies with by far the smallest and most restricted population, is found only in the eastern Canary Islands where they are known by the name of guirre. Described as a new subspecies only in 2002, studies suggest that it is more genetically distant from N. p. percnopterus than N. p. ginginianus is. Unlike neighbouring populations in Africa and southern Europe, they are not migratory and are consistently larger in size. The name majorensis is derived from “Majorata”, the ancient name for the island of Fuerteventura. The island was named by Spanish conquerors in the 15th century after the “Majos”, the main native Guanche tribe there. A study suggests that the species colonized the island around 2500 years ago and the establishment of the population may have been aided by human colonization.
  • The population in the Canary Islands have been isolated from populations in Europe and Africa for a significant period of time and have declined greatly and are of particular concern due to their genetic distinctiveness. The Canarian Egyptian Vulture was historically common, occurring on the islands of La Gomera, Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote. It is now restricted to Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, the two easternmost islands. The total population in 2000 was estimated at about 130 individuals, including 25–30 breeding pairs. The island birds appear to be more susceptible to infections. Island birds appear to accumulate significant amounts of lead from scavenging on hunted animal carcasses and the long-term effect of this poison at a sublethal level is not known although it alters the mineralization of their bones. In order to provide safe and uncontaminated food for nesting birds, attempts have been made to create “vulture restaurants” where carcasses are made available. These interventions however may also encourage opportunist predators and scavengers to concentrate at the site and pose a threat to nesting birds in the vicinity