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Concept: Birecik


One conspicuous feature of several larger bird species is their annual migration in V-shaped or echelon formation. When birds are flying in these formations, energy savings can be achieved by using the aerodynamic up-wash produced by the preceding bird. As the leading bird in a formation cannot profit from this up-wash, a social dilemma arises around the question of who is going to fly in front? To investigate how this dilemma is solved, we studied the flight behavior of a flock of juvenile Northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) during a human-guided autumn migration. We could show that the amount of time a bird is leading a formation is strongly correlated with the time it can itself profit from flying in the wake of another bird. On the dyadic level, birds match the time they spend in the wake of each other by frequent pairwise switches of the leading position. Taken together, these results suggest that bald ibis cooperate by directly taking turns in leading a formation. On the proximate level, we propose that it is mainly the high number of iterations and the immediacy of reciprocation opportunities that favor direct reciprocation. Finally, we found evidence that the animals' propensity to reciprocate in leading has a substantial influence on the size and cohesion of the flight formations.

Concepts: Bird, Threskiornithidae, Ibis, Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus, Souss-Massa National Park, Birecik


The reproductive season is energetically costly as revealed by elevated glucocorticoid concentrations, constrained immune functions and an increased risk of infections. Social allies and affiliative interactions may buffer physiological stress responses and thereby alleviate associated effects. In the present study, we investigated the seasonal differences of immune reactive corticosterone metabolite concentrations, endoparasite burden (nematode eggs and coccidian oocysts) and affiliative interactions in northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita), a critically endangered bird. In total, 43 individually marked focal animals from a free-ranging colony were investigated. The analyses included a description of initiated and received affiliative interactions, pair bond status as well as seasonal patterns of hormone and endoparasite levels. During the reproductive season, droppings contained parasite eggs more often and corticosterone metabolite levels were higher as compared to the period after reproduction. The excretion rate of endoparasite products was lower in paired individuals than in unpaired ones, but paired animals exhibited higher corticosterone metabolite concentrations than unpaired individuals. Furthermore, paired individuals initiated affiliative behaviour more frequently than unpaired ones. This suggests that the reproductive season influences the excretion patterns of endoparasite products and corticosterone metabolites and that affiliative interactions between pair partners may positively affect endoparasite burden during periods of elevated glucocorticoid levels. Being embedded in a pair bond may have a positive impact on individual immune system and parasite resistance.

Concepts: Immune system, Threskiornithidae, Ibis, Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus, Souss-Massa National Park, Birecik


The critically endangered Northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita) is a migratory bird that became extinct in Europe centuries ago. Since 2014, the Northern bald ibis is subject to an intensive rehabilitation and conservation regime aiming to reintroduce the bird in its original distribution range in Central Europe and concurrently to maintain bird health and increase population size. Hitherto, virtually nothing is known about the microbial communities associated with the ibis species; an information pivotal for the veterinary management of these birds. Hence, the present study was conducted to provide a baseline description of the cultivable microbiota residing in the Northern bald ibis. Samples derived from the choana, trachea, crop and cloaca were examined employing a culturomic approach in order to identify microbes at each sampling site and to compare their frequency among age classes, seasonal appearances and rearing types. In total, 94 microbial species including 14 potentially new bacterial taxa were cultivated from the Northern bald ibis with 36, 58 and 59 bacterial species isolated from the choana, crop and cloaca, respectively. The microbiota of the Northern bald ibis was dominated by members of the phylum Firmicutes, followed by Proteobacteria, Actinobacteria, Bacteroidetes and Fusobacteria, altogether phylotypes commonly observed within avian gut environments. Differences in relative abundances of various microbial taxa were evident among sample types indicating mucosa-specific colonisation properties and tissue tropism. Besides, results of the present study indicate that the composition of microbiota was also affected by age, season (environment) and rearing type. While the prevalence of traditional pathogenic microbial species was extremely low, several opportunists including Clostridium perfringens toxotype A were frequently present in samples indicating that the Northern bald ibis may represent an important animal reservoir for these pathogens. In summary, the presented study provides a first inventory of the cultivable microbiota residing in the critically endangered Northern bald ibis and represents a first step in a wider investigation of the ibis microbiome with the ultimate goal to contribute to the management and survival of this critically endangered bird.

Concepts: Bacteria, Microbiology, Threskiornithidae, Ibis, Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus, Souss-Massa National Park, Birecik


The Northern Bald Ibis is one of the rarest bird species, extinct in Europe for 400 years and critically endangered worldwide. The European Union-co-financed LIFE+ project “Reason for Hope - Reintroduction of the Northern Bald Ibis in Europe” aims to reintroduce the species in Europe (Germany, Austria, Italy). In order to obtain information on the genetic diversity within zoo colonies and the reintroduced population, fifteen polymorphic microsatellite markers, specific for the Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus eremita (LINNAEUS, 1785), have been isolated from next-generation sequencing (Illumina MiSeq) and are here described. The microsatellite primers were tested in 30 individuals and measures of genetic variability were calculated. Values for the observed heterozygosity ranged from 0.393 to 0.867, while expected heterozygosity ranged from 0.573 to 0.718. Ten out of fifteen loci were in Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium and only one showed indication for the presence of null alleles. The newly developed PCR primers can be used to examine population genetic parameters e.g. for future conservation genetic studies of this critically endangered bird species.

Concepts: Population genetics, Allele frequency, Threskiornithidae, Ibis, Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus, Souss-Massa National Park, Birecik


A considerable proportion of the world’s bird species undertake seasonal long-distance migrations. These journeys are energetically demanding. Two major behavioural means to reduce energy expenditure have been suggested: the use of thermal uplifts for a soaring-gliding migration style and travelling in echelon or V-shaped formation. Both strategies have immediate consequences for the social organization of the birds as they either cause large aggregations or require travelling in small and stable groups. Here, we first discuss those consequences, and second present an analysis of formation flight in a flock of northern bald ibis on their first southbound migration. We observe clear correlations between leading and trailing on the dyadic level but only a weak correlation on the individual level during independent flight and no convincing correlation during the human guided part of the migration. This pattern is suggestive of direct reciprocation as a means for establishing cooperation during formation flight. In general, we conclude that behavioural adaptations for dealing with physiological constraints on long-distance migrations either necessitate or ultimately foster formation of social groups with different characteristics. Patterns and social organization of birds travelling in groups have been elusive to study; however, new tracking technology-foremost lightweight GPS units-will provide more insights in the near future.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Physiological determinants of social behaviour in animals’.

Concepts: Bird, Threskiornithidae, Ibis, Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus, Souss-Massa National Park, Birecik


Northern Bald Ibis are socially monogamous and year-round colonial birds with a moderate repertoire of calls. Their ‘croop’, for example, is used during greeting of mates, but also during agonistic encounters, and provides an ideal case to study whether calls are revealing with respect to motivational states. We recorded croop calls in a semi-tame and free-roaming flock of Northern Bald Ibis in Austria, and analysed the vocal structure to identify parameters (e.g. call duration, fundamental frequency) potentially differing between social contexts, sexes and individuals. Additionally, we conducted playback experiments to test whether mated pairs would discriminate each other by their greeting croops. Acoustic features showed highly variable temporal and structural parameters. Almost all calls could be classified correctly and assigned to the different social contexts and sexes. Classification results of greeting croops were less clear for individuality. However, incubating individuals looked up more often and longer in response to playbacks of the greeting calls of their mate than to other colony members, indicating mate recognition. We show that acoustic parameters of agonistic and greeting croops contain features that may indicate the expression of affective states, and that greeting croops encode individual differences that are sufficient for individual recognition.

Concepts: Threskiornithidae, Ibis, Northern Bald Ibis, Geronticus, Souss-Massa National Park, Birecik