Thor, an eight-day-old eaglet, is the first eagle in the world to be conceived through artificial insemination using frozen sperma technique that may one day help to preserve endangered species of large raptors.
He is the result of an experiment in Scotland that crossed two captive birds of prey used for falconry: a five-year-old male golden eagle and an eight-year-old female Steppe eagle.
Graham Wishart, a reproductive biologist at the University of Abertay Dundee, and Andrew Knowles-Brown, a Scots falconer, conducted the experiment to show that it was possible to use frozen sperm for breeding eagles.
"We are particularly excited about Thor's birth because it shows this complex science can be taken out of the laboratory and used by falconers and other aviculturists," said Wishart.
Successful reproduction with frozen sperm would enable zoos and avian conservationists to improve breeding stock by cross-fertilization. "We hope our research will help safeguard endangered birds of prey, such as the golden eagle," Wishart said.
"This is an important extra tool that can be used to build up endangered bird populations in the relative safety of captivity, before releasing them into the wild," he explained. "The beauty about using cryopreserved [frozen] sperm is that you can freeze semen indefinitely. One could envisage a situation where a species of bird was in danger of extinction, but the best chance of its survival came from artificially inseminating a bird in Australia with the sperm of a bird in the U.K."
The eaglet, born at Knowles-Brown's farm at Elvanfoot in South Lanarkshire and the first of five fertile eggs to hatch as a result of the technique, will not be released into the wild. As a hybrid between two closely related species, he could pose a danger to the pure-bred, wild golden eagles living in the Highlands.
The two experts had been working on the project for nearly four years before Thor was born.
Knowles-Brown's sheep farm was 15 miles from a foot-and-mouth outbreak in Moffat, which meant Wishart was unable to visit the farm to oversee key aspects of the process. Instead, the duo met at a service station, where Wishart gave his colleague the chemicals and a set of detailed protocols to follow to successfully freeze the sperm. Knowles-Brown said: "We were in contact via e-mail every day prior to artificial insemination of the eagle."
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