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Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Red-crowned Crane (Grus japonensis)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

  • Common names: Japanese or Manchurian crane; known in Japan as tancho ("red mountain")
  • Scientific name: Grus japonensis from Latin grus for "heron" or "stork" and japonesis "from Japan"
  • Above taxonomy according to Sibley & Monroe (1990)
  • One lineage of cranes is formed with Grus japonensisand 4 closely related species (Krajewski & Fetzner 1994; Krajewski et al. 2010):
      • Whooping Crane (North America)
      • Common Crane (Eurasian)
      • Hooded Crane (Russia, China,South Korea, Japan)
      • Black-necked Crane (Tibet)

Evolutionary History

  • Evidence for ancient origin of gruiform families (Fain et al. 2007):
    • Widespread geographical distribution
    • Great morphological and ecological diversity 
    • Ancient divergence of closely related limpkins from cranes around 48 million years ago (Eocene)
  • A precursor to modern cranes: 28-34 million years ago (Oligocene) in southern France (Mayr 2005)
    • Chicken-sized
    • Beak shorter than in modern cranes
    • Limb proportions like those of rails
  • The two subfamilies of cranes diverged around 20-25 million years ago (Fain et al. 2007) (Archibald & Meine 1996)
    • Balearicinae (crowned cranes)
      • At least 11 species formerly inhabited Europe and North America but vanished as earth's climate cooled
      • Only 2 modern species of crowned cranes remain in warmer climates in Africa
      • Distinguished by ability to roost in trees, loose body plumage, a short straight windpipe (trachea), and can't tolerate cold
    • Gruinae ("typical" cranes)
      • Around 13 species today, including red-crowned cranes
      • Adapted to cold climates; over time their diversity increased as world climates cooled
      • Don't roost in trees, have long coiled windpipe (trachea) that produces complex calls
  • Some speculation that red-crowned cranes were once non-migratory, as they are in northern Japan today (Archibald & Meine 1996)

Cultural History

  • Ancient Egyptians decorated their tombs with images of cranes (Archibald & Maine 1996)
  • The beauty of cranes' dancing inspired human dance in many cultures:
    • Indigenous Ainu in northern Hokkaido, Japan traditionally performed a crane dance
    • Korean dancers perform Hangmu traditional crane dances wearing realistic crane costumes (HBMC website 2005)
    • Modern Korean dancers re-interpret a traditional art form of crane dancing in the Dongnae Crane Dance (Korea Society 2005)
  • Cranes were protected in feudal Japan; peasants brought them food
    • By late 1800s this protection ended with end of feudal system
  • Japanese art from 5th century to present frequently depicts red-crowned cranes (Britton & Hayashida 1981)
    • A Japanese hand scroll painting shows cranes in a variety of poses (British Museum 2011)
    • Japan Airlines' logo is a stylized crane nest (cranes symbolize long life, prosperity and good health) (Japan Airlines 2011)
  • China uses the crane in much decorative art
  • Red-crowned cranes are associated with nobility and immortality in China
    • A "fairy crane" may carry a noble person to immortality
    • A mosque in the shape of a crane was built in 1275 in Guangdong Province (Fairy Crane Mosque 2011)
  • Folk tales about cranes from Russia, Sicily, India, feature sly cranes (Leach 1972)
    • Cranes trick fish by offering to transport fish to a safe place, away from fishermen; cranes eat fish at end of story
  • In 1798, How to Fold a Thousand Cranes published in Japan (Britton & Hayashima 1981)
    • A tradition developed: by folding 1,000 paper cranes, a person might petition a crane for happiness, good luck, long life
    • Strings of paper cranes often hung at temples and shrines
    • A statue of a young girl, Sadako Sasaki, holding a paper crane placed at Peace Park in Hiroshima in 1958
      • Commemorates her folded paper cranes and her death by radiation poisoning
    • In 2011, students around the world folded paper cranes to help raise money for earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan (PR Newswire 2011)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Gruiformes

Family: Gruidae

Subfamily: Gruinae

Genus: Grus (Brisson, 1760)

Species: Grus japonensis (Statius Müller, 1776) - Red-crowned Crane

Source: Integrated Taxonomic Information System (2017); Gill and Donsker (2019)

Red-crowned Crane

Red-crowned Crane

Red-crowned cranes are associated with nobility and immortality in China.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Archibald & Meine (1996)
Fain et al. (2007)
HBMC (2005)
Japan Airlines (2011)
Korea Society (2005)
Krajewski & Fetzner (1994)
Krajewski et al. (2010)
Leach (1972)
Mayr (2005)
Sibley & Monroe (1990)

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