Animals in Therapy | Deep Dive

Condors are doing it for themselves

You’ve got to see a California condor in the flesh to appreciate its scale. With a wingspan of 9 to 10 feet, this colossus of North American skies can cruise to 15,000 feet in its search for prey. Now rarely seen outside California, Utah, Arizona and Mexico, the California condor is a skilled scavenger that once roamed as far east as Florida and New York. And since it weighs anything between 18 and 31 pounds, it certainly would have been – and still is – hard to miss. 

Learn more about the Californian Condor

A first for wild birds?

Time – settlers, pesticides, and lead poisoning – almost put paid to that. In 1967 California condors were added to the US list of Endangered Species. Numbers dropped to as low as 22 in 1982 and have only increased slowly since, largely due to the success of the captive breeding program. And it’s true. In 2021, two of these gargantuan raptors in San Diego Zoo hatched young from unfertilized eggs! The first time ever this had been known to happen among condors or any wild birds. 

Virgin births

What we’re talking about is parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction where young develop from female egg cells that haven’t been fertilized. Also known as ‘virgin birth’, this biological wizardry was ‘discovered’ by the naturalist Charles Bonnet in 1740 when he isolated a female aphid in a glass jar, and she gave birth.                          

Other more recently recorded parthenogenetic firsts to have surprised scientists include a pup born to a captive female hammerhead shark at a Nebraska aquarium in 2001. Five years later, two mature female Komodo dragons in English zoos laid unfertilized eggs that hatched. 

Isolated females who go it alone 

Scientists don’t know for certain what triggered these parthenogenetic births among fish, reptiles and condors that usually reproduce sexually. Could they be related to its occurrence among the solitary females of island and desert species? (To create populations of their own kind – and pass on their genes – the theory goes, these isolated ladies sometimes go it alone so to speak.) What’s more, we only know the parthenogenetic births took place because, in each case, the parent involved was confined.

What happens in the wild is any conservationist’s guess! 

Hidden wonders of the animal world 

The fact that we are only now uncovering the possible extent of parthenogenesis is a reminder of how little we know about the world’s most threatened species. Every year we’re still discovering hundreds of new ones.

In 2021, the smallest reptile, the Brookesia nana chameleon, was identified. The following year, a unique tarantula that lives only in bamboo was spotted. So, imagine the millions of weird and wonderful behaviors and survival traits that could be lost – even before unidentified species are found.

Do your bit for California condors     

California condors’ newly unearthed parthenogenetic capability is fascinating news. There may be more time – and ways – to save the species from extinction than we thought. While the birds are still Critically Endangered, lead ammunition – a major cause of death – has been banned in California. This, and interventions such as the captive breeding program, has ensured that a small but growing population of 200 to 500 exists. 

If you’re keen about bringing these raptors back from the brink and want to share with friends, please repost this video or infographic. You can stay informed by signing up to our newsletter and checking out organizations that we think are doing an excellent job helping:

  • Click here to sign up to our On the Edge newsletter. Once a month we’ll send you remarkable stories about endangered species and the natural world. 

  • Friends of the Condor is a non-profit that aims to raise awareness and promote the recovery of the California condor through education and outreach work.

  • Adopt a California Condor At the Grand Canyon Visitor Center in Arizona you can adopt a condor for $12 to help them thrive or buy a stuffed condor toy. Proceeds from the sale of the latter go to the California Condor Restoration Program, a project of the Peregrine Fund.