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Ecol Appl. 2009 Jun;19(4):840-53.

Goats, birds, and emergent diseases: apparent and hidden effects of exotic species in an island environment.

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  • 1Department of Conservation Biology, Estación Biológica de Doñana, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Avda. Américo Vespucio s/n, La Cartuja, 41092, Sevilla, Spain.


Exotic species can have devastating effects on recipient environments and even lead to the outbreak of emergent diseases. We present here several hidden effects that the introduction of goats has had on the Lesser Short-toed Lark, Calandrella rufescens, the commonest native bird inhabiting the island of Fuerteventura (Canary Islands). Vegetation structure varied with grazing pressure, and indeed, vegetation was all but eradicated from the locality with greatest goat densities, which was also where the lowest density of Lesser Short-toed Larks was recorded. The impact of habitat impoverishment, however, was partially compensated for by changes in the foraging behavior of birds, which benefited from the abundant food provided to goats on farms. Capture-resighting methods showed that birds visiting farms outnumbered the estimates for birds obtained in the surrounding natural habitat, suggesting that there was recruitment from a much larger area. Stable isotope analyses of feathers indicated that island birds feed largely on the maize supplied at goat farms, showing poorer body condition than birds from populations not associated with farms (peninsular Spain and Morocco). Moreover, larks from Fuerteventura had a very high prevalence of poxvirus lesions compared with other bird populations worldwide and may increase the risk of contracting the disease by feeding on farms, where they aggregate and coexist atypically with domestic birds. The island birds also had lower average productivity, which may be the consequence of the emergent disease and/or the poor nutritional state resulting from feeding on a low-protein diet. Diseased and non-diseased birds from Fuerteventura showed similar body condition and annual survival rates. However, the isotopic traces of delta 13C indicate that the diet of diseased birds was more uniform than that of non-diseased birds, being based on food from goat farms. Our results show how the combination of species frequently introduced onto islands (goats, poultry, and associated pathogens) can create ecological traps for native species that are not always easy to identify. Moreover, we stress that nutrition and infectious diseases are important determinants of the well-being and dynamics of animal populations, and thus health research must be included in the design of monitoring programs and conservation strategies.

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