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Gallirallus wakensis (Rothschild)

Wake Rail (Gallirallus wakensis)

Wake Island is a small atoll in the Pacific Ocean, consisting of the three larger islands Peale, Wake and Wilkes Island and a few smaller islets. Wake Island has been a United States military base since the end of World War II. From a bird’s eye view, the viewer immediately sees the huge runway for airplanes.  

In addition to numerous species of seabirds, the atoll was once home to an endemic species of rail, which apparently only inhabited the two islands of Wake and Wilkes, but did not occur on Peale Island.  

The Wake Rail was described in 1903 by Lionel Walter Rothschild under the name Hypotaenidia wakensis. Later, in 1923, the species was mentioned a second time. From July 27 to August 5, 1923, the “Tanager Expedition” stayed on Wake Island to study the native flora and fauna. Frank Alexander Wetmore, a well-known ornithologist and participant of this expedition, wrote a few lines about the Wake Rail during this time:  

These birds seem very sedentary. Those that I take on sandy areas where there is only scattered areas of shade, are very worn and pale color above, those from certain sections where there are extensive dead-falls have the wing feathers worn and abraded, apparently from their use in climbing about . This is true though more suitable areas where conditions are less severe may be found near at hand. The wing claw in this species is very large and strong.

During World War II, the atoll was occupied by Japanese troops, which, in the course of the war, were cut off from their supplies. So they had to take care of themselves, and so the tasty, easy-to-capture, because completely flightless Wake Rails came in handy. The soldiers’ appetites, however, were very large, too large for the small population of the rail species.  

After the end of World War II, the Wake Rail no longer existed.

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References:

[1] Dieter Luther: Die ausgestorbenen Vögel der Welt. Westarp Wissenschaften 1986 
[2] Errol Fuller: Extinct Birds. Penguin Books (England) 1987 
[3] Barry Taylor, Ber van Perlo: Rails: A Guide to the Rails, Crakes, Gallinules and Coots of the World. Yale University Press 1998 [4] David W. Steadman: Extinction and Biogeography of Tropical Pacific Birds. University of Chicago Press 2006

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Photo: W. S. Grooch

(public domain)

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edited: 02.05.2021