Marc Schlossman/Panos Pictures

Chigago, Illinois, USA

Atitlan Grebe (Podilymbus gigas), Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. No. 97557. Conservation status: extinct.

The Atitlan grebe, also known as the poc, was a large, flightless water bird endemic to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala's Sierra Madre mountain range. The species was first described in 1929 and was declared extinct by 1990.

In a strange, unfortunate twist of fate for the poc, the actions that led to its extinction can be primarily attributed to airline company Pan American Airways. In an attempt to encourage tourism in the Lake Atitlan area, Pan Am convinced the government to entice leisure fishermen to the area by populating the lake with the invasive but popular sport fishing species black bass. The fishes literally dropped out of the sky one day in 1958, as they were released from seaplanes into the lake. The bass quickly began eating the crabs, snails and fish that previously sustained the poc, as well as eating poc chicks. They became the area's apex predator and significantly stunted the biodiversity of Lake Atitlan. In 1960 there were 200 individual Atitlan grebe; by 1965 this number had more than halved.

The poc would have suffered a more rapid extinction rate if it were not for the efforts of American ecologist Anne LaBastille. In 1966 LaBastille set up a refuge for the poc on the banks of the lake (during the brutal Guatemalan civil war, no less) and by 1973, numbers of poc rose to 210. However, after a 1976 earthquake, the lake's water level dropped by two metres, having a devastating impact on their numbers once again. Only 32 individuals remained by 1983, with the last reported sighting in 1989.

Today, Lake Atitlan continues to be affected by the ill-advised idea to introduce bass to its ecosystem. As the bass has preyed upon all of the creatures that controlled bacteria levels in the lake, bacteria thrive and fish numbers are low. The pollution and stench coming from the lake has meant that the once burgeoning tourism industry has suffered the same fate as the airline that sought to profit from it.

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Object Name
Marc Schlossman/Panos Pictures
Chigago, Illinois
Max size
High Resolution
5000 x 3337 pixels
42.33 x 28.25 cm (300 dpi)
16.67 x 11.12 inch (300 dpi)
2.4 MB size on disk
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