The Galapagos Islands are home to a number of strange birds, and the flightless cormorant — also known as the Galapagos cormorant — is certainly one of the strangest of them all. Of the 40 or so species of cormorant in the world, this bird, endemic to just two islands in the Galapagos archipelago, is the only one that has lost the ability to fly.
Quite why the flightless cormorant forgot how to fly remains an open question. What we do know is that the flightless cormorant last shared a common ancestor with flying cormorants around two million years ago, which is relatively recently in evolutionary terms.
Recent research has pointed to mutations on genes related to cilia or skeletal growth, which could have changed the cormorant’s skeletal structure, resulting in what one researcher called “overgrown big chicks.” This could explain the flightless cormorant’s small wings, which are only one-third the size required for a bird of this size to fly.
Another possibility, connected or otherwise, is that flight simply became unnecessary for these cormorants. Having evolved on islands with no real predators, and feeding primarily by diving along the abundant coastlines, it’s possible that flight was simply deemed surplus to evolutionary requirement.
Whatever the reason, the end result was the largest existing species of cormorant, one with dark plumage, stubby little wings and an endearing clumsiness on land. But while it may lack elegance while hopping from rock to rock, the flightless cormorant has evolved into a fine diver and swimmer.
Using their powerful legs and webbed feet, these cormorants dive down to the seafloor, never too far from the land, hunting fish and octopus that they spear with their long beaks, which are hooked at the tip.
There are currently about 1,000 breeding pairs of flightless cormorants on the Galapagos Islands. They are limited to just two islands: Isabela (mainly on the north western coat) and Fernandina (east coast). They can be seen throughout the year, but normally nest between May and October.
Read more about the Flightless Cormorant at Galapagos Conservation Trust.
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