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How Puking Could Save the Endangered Marbled Murrelet

For the marbled murrelet the conservation plan is a little unusual: making their predators vomit

smithsonian.com

Image: USFWS

For every endangered animal, there are probably at least two plans to save it. Many of these plans involve raising public awareness, conserving habitat, removing invasive species or breeding new members in captivity. But for the marbled murrelet, the plan is a little different: making their predators vomit.

Basically, scientists are going to paint the odorless, tasteless chemical called carbachol onto the eggs of the marbeled murrelet. This way, when an egg-eating Steller’s jay comes along and tries to chow down on the endangered birds’ vulnerable eggs, the jay will puke immediately. This sudden, extreme response is perfect for teaching jays to avoid murrelet eggs, researcher Keith Benson told Live Science: ”All of a sudden, their wings will droop, and they throw up. That’s exactly what you want — a rapid response — so within five minutes, they barf up whatever they ate.”

This sort of conditioning of the jays is called conditioned taste aversion (CTA). The Fish and Wildlife Service explains that”ays that ingest carbacholtreated eggs are expected to associate the unpleasant experience with murrelet eggs such that they modify their behavior and avoid ingesting actual murrelet eggsthey encounter in the future.”

This is actually part of a two-pronged strategy to keep the Steller’s jay from taking over murrelet territory. The second prong involves keeping humans from feeding the jays. It turns out that there are more jays near campgrounds—full of tasty trash—than there are anywhere else in their range.

The marbled murrelet is a weird little bird. It spends some of its time in the redwood forest and some of its time in the Pacific Ocean. They’re like puffins—little duck like birds with webbed feet—which makes it odd to see them in the forest. But the birds breed in the forest, which is where the jay likes to snatch their eggs. Because of this egg snatching, along with deforestation and pollution, the murrelet population is down by over 90 percent compared to it nineteenth century population. The Steller’s jay, however, is doing quite well. The Cornell Ornithology lab describes them as “bold, inquisitive, intelligent, and noisy.” Now they can add “pukey” to that list.

More from Smithsonian.com:

The City Bird and the Country Bird
A Bird Ballet

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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