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Studying nature's balancing act Ecology in demand.

Researchers at UAE University collect data on endangered seabird species unique to the Arabian Gulf region to understand how it fits into the big picture

Diverse sectors of economy urged to drive interest

Al Ain Experts at UAE University (UAEU) are now studying an endangered seabird species endemic to the Arabian Gulf and Omani coast.

Declining population trends of Socotra cormorants have prompted researchers at UAEU to study the unique seabirds whose biology, habits and diet have never been documented. The research is being conducted in collaboration with the Environment Agency- Abu Dhabi (EAD).

"The largest known population was found in Bahrain circa 1995 and recorded at 39,000 breeding pairs," said Dr Sabir Bin Muzaffar, head of the research project at UAEU. "To put that figure into perspective, earlier estimates from the 1980s were 120,000 breeding pairs."

Known colonies

The Socotra cormorants, unique to this region with 14 known colonies, are one species of the 30 breeds of cormorants found worldwide. They are listed on the red list of threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The UAE is home to an estimated 38,000 breeding colonies, 15,000 of which are found on Siniya Island in Umm Al Quwain. The UAEU research project, in its second year, has so far received Dh448,000 from the university's research grant and is set to conclude in its third year.

"The fact there is almost nothing on this bird is really good for us because we went in wanting to figure out anything general," said Sonya Benjamin, 23, research associate at UAEU. "It's a very broad project because we are looking for dietary habits and foraging behaviour patterns, exact populations and all the things about them never covered before."

Main threats

Sonya added that the data collected through research will help conserve the seabirds that are dying due to fishing waste as well as predators introduced by humans such as the Arabian fox. "We witnessed at least 300 birds of the total population in Siniya being killed by the foxes who were recently introduced," she said.

"The introduction of the foxes wreaks havoc in the breeding season because the birds nest on the ground which makes them vulnerable because they are not preyed on naturally."

Other habitats

Other colonies of Socotra cormorants in the UAE are found on some of Abu Dhabi's islands such as Umm Qasar, Yasat Island and Dina Island, said Dr Salim Javed, ecologist at EAD.

"There is a misconception that the birds are not very nice and smelly as well as competing with fisherman by feeding on fish," said Dr Javed. "Due to that reason and others the species has suffered quite a bit."

Dr Bin Muzaffar added that seabirds generally have a large impact on the entire ecosystem as they are part of the marine environment and help balance fish species and other invertebrates. "To remove all the seabirds from the Arabian Gulf could cause large fluctuations in certain types of fish which could affect the entire web, including fish we eat," he said. "The fact the Socotra cormorants are a regional endemic in itself makes them an extremely important species and we are trying to understand what it does in relation to the ecosystem."

The UAE needs more graduates of ecology in order to help protect its natural environment, says Dr Salim Javed at the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi.

The UAE University (UAEU) is one of the only institutions in the country to offer ecology degrees at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. The current undergraduate ecology class in the department of biology consists of 50 students but, according to Dr Javed, an ecologist himself, that is not enough.

"There are not many ecologists in the UAE," he said. "Given what's happening around us and the way the environment is being impacted it is imperative to have more trained ecologists to study our surrounding environment."

He added it is the joint responsibility of many sectors and universities to protect the UAE's ecological sector.

"The general perception is that the UAE is a desert and arid land with not much in terms of wildlife but the UAE is in fact very rich in terms of biodiversity," he said. "There are more than 440 bird species alone as well as many mammals, reptiles, plants and marine life."

Dr Javed added that public education about the important role ecologists play in the bigger picture is fundamental in encouraging youths in the field. "Society, ecology and economics cannot be separated; look at the recent tsunamis," he said.

"A good environment is at the core of any sound economy the world over and if we don't protect it we will ultimately see the cost in one form or another."

Dwindling flock

Socotra cormorants (above) are listed on the red list of threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Their declining numbers have prompted a concerned group of researchers at UAEU to document their habits in collaboration with the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi.

critical subject

Given what's happening around us and the way the environment is being impacted it is imperative to have more trained ecologists to study our surrounding environment."

Dr Salim Javed

Ecologist, Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:May 20, 2012
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