The Hooded Grebe Is a Critically Endangered Species — and a Critically Acclaimed Dancer

hooded grebe
Only about 1,000 hooded grebes remain in the wild, all in Argentina and Chile. (Photo: Juan María Raggio/Wikimedia Commons)

Argentina is the birthplace of tango, an iconic dance style dating back to the 1880s. Long before the first tango steps were taken, however, another dance was already in full swing across parts of Patagonia: the hypnotic grooves of the hooded grebe.

That dance is still going on today, as you can see in the incredible clip above from "Tango in the Wind," a new documentary about hooded grebes. Yet despite their impressive moves, the hooded grebes' dance is increasingly in danger of disappearing. That's because hooded grebes themselves have become a critically endangered species, with only about 1,000 individuals remaining in the wild.

About 20 different species make up the grebe family, including the great crested grebes of Eurasia as well as North America's western grebes and Clark's grebes. Many of these are well-known for their elaborate courtship dances, some of which even involve the birds running on top of water by taking up to 20 steps per second.

The hooded grebe, however, is a bit more mysterious. It inhabits an array of lakes and estuaries in southern Patagonia, whose harsh environment has kept it relatively hidden from humanity. In fact, the species was unknown to science until 1974, when researchers first discovered it at Argentina's Laguna Los Escarchados.

"There aren't many people who know much about hooded grebe courtship," says Kenn Kaufman, field editor for Audubon magazine, in an article about the video. "The people who made this video probably know as much about the bird as anyone does."

Unfortunately, living in remote and inhospitable places hasn't been enough to protect the hooded grebe, which was listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2012. As many as 5,000 may have existed in the late 1990s, but the IUCN cites an "extremely rapid population decline" of 80 percent over the past 25 years. The species seems to face two main threats, according to the IUCN: climate change and the introduction of American minks.

"American mink threaten the species at all stages of its life, with nests, chicks and adults all vulnerable to predation," the IUCN writes of the invasive carnivores, which were introduced to Patagonia by fur farmers last century. "Furthermore, American mink are known to exhibit 'surplus killing', which means the presence of a single animal could result in the loss of whole grebe colonies."

Beyond the menace of minks, climate change is also drying up parts of hooded grebe breeding habitat, which is already limited. Other threats include competition from non-native trout, predation by kelp gulls and grazing by sheep, which can lead to lakeshore erosion that limits the growth of vegetation, the IUCN notes. Plus, as BirdLife International has warned, proposed hydroelectric dams on Argentina's Santa Cruz River could wreak havoc with hooded grebes' breeding habitat.

Thankfully, however, there are people working to make sure these birds continue dancing long into the future. To learn more about hooded grebe conservation efforts, check out "Tango in the Wind" from filmmakers Paula and Michael Webster: