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Atlas, the first male Rüppell's or spotted vulture to breed successfully at El Chorro. SUR
Critically endangered African vulture breeds for first time in Malaga province
Nature

Critically endangered African vulture breeds for first time in Malaga province

The unique chick, a result of Rüppell and griffon species parents crossbreeding, was born in the El Chorro area

Ignacio Lillo

Malaga

Sunday, 3 March 2024, 09:06

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The El Chorro natural area near Ardales, north of Malaga city and famous for the El Caminito del Rey gorge walk, has become a site of refuge and hope for the Rüppell's vulture, an African species that is in critical danger of extinction on that continent. However, in the province it has found an ideal place to live and, for the first time, to also breed... Although the mating couple did not turned out to be the one that was expected.

The first reliable evidence that the Rüppell vulture had settled in the area of the Guadalhorce reservoirs came from Juanita, a female that was marked with a GPS tag by the team of researchers led by Antonio-Román Muñoz, ornithologist and professor of Biology at the UMA University of Malaga, together with Raimundo Real, professor of Zoology. This specimen, since it settled in the area has been trying to breed every year but had been unable to do so. "Whenever it found a mate, it was always with a griffon vulture, which is a different species. We saw it copulate with a male and even build a nest, but it didn't lay eggs.

At the same time, another Rüppell vulture arrived in Malaga, a male that the researchers christened Atlas. This one also paired up in El Chorro, but like Juanita, he looked for a mate of the other species, a female griffon. But on this occasion, the pair have managed to raise a chick, which is a hybrid of both species and has not yet been given a name.

Several milestones

There are several milestones surrounding this event: "This is - as Antonio-Román Muñoz explains - the first record of a Rüppell's vulture nesting in Europe, in Malaga province; and it has also done so by hybridising with a griffon vulture, making it the first time that a crossbreeding of these two species has been recorded in nature".

Griffon vulture specimens on the left and Rüppell's vulture on the right.
Griffon vulture specimens on the left and Rüppell's vulture on the right. SUR

Asked whether this could give rise to a new variety, the scientist clarified: "At the moment there is a chick with a Rüppell father and a griffon mother, which we have fitted with a GPS transmitter and we know it is in Mali. For now, the young bird looks more like its mother, although it will change its plumage three or four times until it acquires its definitive plumage, and it is not known what it will look like as an adult.

Early hypotheses pointed to climate change, although other more likely causes are now being investigated

Vultures breed between the fourth and fifth year of life. If it manages to survive in the wild and with humans during this time, it will be possible to check whether this first scientifically proven hybrid is fertile or not.

Rüppell's vulture is a species of which there are fewer and fewer in Africa, and the current population is around 20% of what it was 30 years ago, due to poisoning, electrocution and human persecution, as their feathers are used in traditional medicine. In this context of extreme threat of extinction, some specimens are arriving in southern Europe and are beginning to establish themselves here.

Several scientific publications and conferences have reported on this milestone

This research has been compiled in an article published in the scientific journal Ardeola, written by Antonio-Román Muñoz together with Raimundo Real and Juan Ramírez. The conclusions have also been presented at the International Vulture Congress, recently held in Cáceres, and at the International Ornithology Fair. In addition, a meeting will be held in Malaga in May to set up an international group of experts on this endangered species, organised by the UNIA-UICN chair.

Although the first theories pointed to climate change as the trigger for the species' upward movement, studies now point to other reasons. It is a species that occupies purely tropical areas in Africa, so its arrival on the Iberian Peninsula may be conditioned by the winter migrations of the tawny owls. "Juveniles go to Senegal, Gambia and other sub-Saharan countries to spend the winter. In this process, they mix with the Rüppell, and when they return to Europe they bring them with them; they are two very social species".

Climate change?

"What we propose in the scientific article we have published is to reflect on whether the occupation of Europe by the Rüppell's vulture is an opportunity for its conservation or a trap for the species, because they are specimens that stop breeding in Africa and, once here, either do not reproduce, as in the case of Juanita, or do so in hybrid pairs, which we have called a genetic amalgamation trap".

The latter is justified by the population imbalance: in Spain there are around 100,000 griffon vultures and "a few dozen" (20 to 40 specimens) of Rüppell, so that, when it comes to pairing up, it is much easier for a crossbreeding to occur as a mere statistical matter. At present, Spain is the safest country in the world and the one with the best-preserved populations, the expert ornithologist stresses. "It's a good place to be a vulture, and once they settle here they don't return to Africa.

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