Drying In The Sun
Guido Montanes Castillo
Drying in the sun
The bird family Phalacrocoracidae or the cormorants (/ˈkɔrmərənts/) is represented by some 40 species of cormorants and shags. Several different classifications of the family have been proposed recently, and the number of genera is disputed.
Cormorants and shags are medium-to-large seabirds. They range in size from the Pygmy Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pygmaeus), at as little as 45 cm (18 in) and 340 g (12 oz), to the Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi), at a maximum size 100 cm (40 in) and 5 kg (11 lb). The recently-extinct Spectacled Cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus) was rather larger, at an average size of 6.3 kg (14 lb). The majority, including nearly all Northern Hemisphere species, have mainly dark plumage, but some Southern Hemisphere species are black and white, and a few (e.g. the Spotted Shag of New Zealand) are quite colourful. Many species have areas of coloured skin on the face (the lores and the gular skin) which can be bright blue, orange, red or yellow, typically becoming more brightly coloured in the breeding season. The bill is long, thin, and sharply hooked. Their feet have webbing between all four toes, as in their relatives.
They are coastal rather than oceanic birds, and some have colonised inland waters – indeed, the original ancestor of cormorants seems to have been a fresh-water bird, judging from the habitat of the most ancient lineage. They range around the world, except for the central Pacific islands.
All are fish-eaters, dining on small eels, fish, and even water snakes. They dive from the surface, though many species make a characteristic half-jump as they dive, presumably to give themselves a more streamlined entry into the water. Under water they propel themselves with their feet. Some cormorant species have been found, using depth gauges, to dive to depths of as much as 45 metres.
After fishing, cormorants go ashore, and are frequently seen holding their wings out in the sun. All cormorants have preen gland secretions that are used ostensibly to keep the feathers waterproof. Some sources state that cormorants have waterproof feathers while others say that they have water permeable feathers. Still others suggests that the outer plumage absorbs water but does not permit it to penetrate the layer of air next to the skin. The wing drying action is seen even in the flightless cormorant but commonly in the Antarctic shags and red-legged cormorants. Alternate functions suggested for the spread-wing posture include that it aids thermoregulation, digestion, balances the bird or indicates presence of fish. A detailed study of the Great Cormorant concludes that it is without doubt to dry the plumage.
Cormorants are colonial nesters, using trees, rocky islets, or cliffs. The eggs are a chalky-blue colour. There is usually one brood a year. The young are fed through regurgitation. They typically have deep, ungainly bills, showing a greater resemblance to those of the pelicans', to which they are related, than is obvious in the adults.
The cormorants are a group traditionally placed within the Pelecaniformes or, in the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy, the expanded Ciconiiformes. This latter group is certainly not a natural one, and even after the tropicbirds have been recognised as quite distinct, the remaining Pelecaniformes seem not to be entirely monophyletic. Their relationships and delimitation – apart from being part of a "higher waterfowl" clade which is similar but not identical to Sibley and Ahlquist's "pan-Ciconiiformes" – remain mostly unresolved. Notwithstanding, all evidence agrees that the cormorants and shags are closer to the darters and Sulidae (gannets and boobies), and perhaps the pelicans and/or even penguins, than to all other living birds.
In recent years, three preferred treatments of the cormorant family have emerged: either to leave all living cormorants in a single genus, Phalacrocorax, or to split off a few species such as the Imperial Shag complex (in Leucocarbo) and perhaps the Flightless Cormorant. Alternatively, the genus may be disassembled altogether and in the most extreme case be reduced to the Great, White-breasted and Japanese Cormorants.
Pending a thorough review of the Recent and prehistoric cormorants, the single-genus approach is followed here for three reasons: First, it is preferable to tentatively assigning genera without a robust hypothesis. Second, it makes it easier to deal with the fossil forms, the systematic treatment of which has been no less controversial than that of living cormorants and shags. Third, this scheme is also used by the IUCN, making it easier to incorporate data on status and conservation. In accordance with the treatment there, the Imperial Shag complex is here left unsplit as well, but the King Shag complex has been.
Several evolutionary groups are still recognizable. However, combining the available evidence suggests that there has also been a great deal of convergent evolution; for example the "cliff shags" are a convergent paraphyletic group. The proposed division into Phalacrocorax sensu stricto (or subfamily Phalacrocoracinae) "cormorants" and Leucocarbo sensu lato (or Leucocarboninae) "shags" does indeed have some degree of merit – though not as originally intended – but fails to account for basal lineages and the fact that the entire family cannot be clearly divided at present beyond the superspecies or species-complex level. The resolution provided by the mtDNA 12S rRNA and ATPase subunits 6 and 8 sequence data is not sufficient to properly resolve several groups to satisfaction; in addition, many species remain unsampled, the fossil record has not been integrated in the data, and the effects of hybridisation – known in some Pacific species especially – on the DNA sequence data are unstudied.
June 1st, 2012
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