3 Sep 2019

Meet the Lazarus Birds: 5 species once presumed extinct

The dramatic rediscovery of the Antioquia Brush-finch – a species unseen for almost half a century – hit the headlines this past April. However, such incredible returns, although rare, are not unheard of. We explore some of the most miraculous examples of recent times, and what they teach us about the danger of presuming a species is extinct.

Cebu Flowerpecker © HBW
Cebu Flowerpecker © HBW
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Talk about the mundanity of miracles: in January of last year, while on his way to Sunday Mass, a flash of rust-coloured crown caught the eye of the Colombian researcher Rodolfo Correa Peña. Here, skulking in a few patches of shrubland in this small town on the outskirts of Medellin – a city of over 2.5 million people, remember – was a species no-one had seen since 1971.

The story of the Antioquia Brush-finch Atlapetes blancae is fascinating, but by no means unique in ornithological circles. Indeed, 47 years is a blink of an eye when compared to the likes of the Cerulean Paradise-flycatcher Eutrichomyias rowleyi of Sangihe, Indonesia, which was rediscovered in the island’s forested valleys in December 1978; an incredible 100 years after the only other known specimen was collected in 1878.

These stunning returns often raise more questions than answers. How did they go unnoticed for so long, and how did we know where to look? And now that we’ve found them, what are their chances of long-term survival? And, most tantalisingly, what other possibly extinct species could still be out there? These miracle ‘back from the dead’ stories are the reason why BirdLife, as the authority of birds for the IUCN Red List, is loath to declare a species extinct until we’re sure researchers have combed through every last patch of viable habitat.

 

1. Damar Flycatcher: hiding in remote sight

 

© HBW

Rediscovering ‘lost’ species often requires travelling to remote and difficult locations. The Damar Flycatcher Ficedula henrici was first documented in 1898, when Heinrich Kühn – a paid specimen collector for the British banker, Walter Rothschild– stepped onto the remote Indonesian island of Damar and (as was the spirit of the time) shot examples of every bird species he could find. For the entire duration of the twentieth century, the small dark-blue bird was known only from the single specimen Kühn shipped to the museum. It was thought that the bird may yet persist on Damar, but its conservation status was completely unknown, as finding the time, money, and individuals necessary to launch a trip to survey a bird on a remote island was difficult to say the least.

Finally, in late 2001, Dr. Colin Trainor of BirdLife and Clemens Bulurdity of the Indonesian Directorate General of Forest and Nature Conservation were able to survey Damar, determining that the flycatcher is actually relatively widespread on the island and thus only classified as Near Threatened. However, logging and an increasing human population on the island are growing concerns.

 

2. Cebu Flowerpecker: The Romeo error

 

© HBW

While the Damar Flycatcher’s rediscovery revealed that the species’ future was relatively secure, this is rarely the case for species that fall off the radar for extended periods of time. Take the Cebu Flowerpecker Dicaeum quadricolor which was presumed extinct in 1959 when its native island of Cebu, in the Philippines, was cleared of all forest. Hope sprung eternal when this pronouncement turned out to be incorrect: the flowerpecker was rediscovered in 1992 when ornithologists Rob Timmins and Perla Magsalay were surveying the island. However, because conservation groups had been previously unaware of the birds’ existence, no efforts had been made to protect the forest in which it lived. Therefore, the forest had been significantly cut back, and the flowerpecker’s prospects for long-term survival had severely dwindled.

To this day, the species remains classified as Critically Endangered, despite renewed efforts to protect the forest where it lives. Circumstances like those that led to the flowerpecker’s decline are known as the Romeo Error, after the tragic end of the Shakespeare play, in which Romeo’s assumption of Juliet’s apparent death ultimately results in her demise.

 

3. Gurney’s Pitta: lost and found… and lost again?

 

© HBW

As the Cebu Flowerpecker situation shows us, it’s exciting and motivating when a species is rediscovered after decades in the wilderness, but finding it alive after so long without human contact doesn’t guarantee that its long-term survival is secure. Before 1915, Gurney’s Pitta Hydrornis gurneyi was widespread across Thailand. However, habitat loss took its toll, and there were no confirmed sightings of the bird between 1952 and 1985. It was rediscovered in Thailand in 1986, with populations found in five separate locations. However, by 1997 populations had dwindled again, and it was estimated that there were only nine pairs left, making it one of the rarest species on earth.

Fortunately, in 2003 a search for the species in Myanmar discovered a substantial population. However, this population seems to be going the way of the Thai birds as well, with habitat loss making the pitta Endangered. If it is lost again, it’s certain that this time it will be for good.

 

4. Blue-eyed Ground-dove: protecting habitat

 

© HBW

In June 2015, Brazilian ornithologist Rafael Bessa was conducting field research in the state of Minas Gerais when he heard a bird song he didn’t recognize. Confused, Bessa recorded the call and played it. In response, a bird Bessa had never seen before flew into view. Later, zooming in on the photographs, Bessa was shocked to see that it was a Blue-eyed Ground-dove Columbina cyanopis, a species that hadn’t been documented since 1941. The species was rediscovered in the cerrado, an ecosystem which is being rapidly destroyed to make way for industrial agriculture. Fortunately, the importance of conserving the dove’s habitat was recognized and in January of 2018, the area where the dove was found was officially recognised as the Blue-eyed Ground-dove Nature Reserve. In July of the same year, a further 89,000 acres were protected, forming the Botumirim State Park.

Currently, around 20 Blue-eyed Ground-doves are known to live in the wild. However, thanks to the protection of the land where it lives, the dove has a better shot at surviving than it would have had if it had remained undiscovered, and a vital and endangered habitat is being protected.

 

5. New Zealand Storm Petrel: conservation pays off

 

© HBW

While rediscovering a species can lead to conservation, sometimes the reverse happens, and conservation actions lead to a rediscovery. The New Zealand Storm-petrel Fregetta maoriana had been thought extinct for over 150 years by the time the calendars had flipped to January 2003; the month Ian “Sav” Saville and Bret Stephenson, birdwatching at sea, spotted and photographed a petrel that looked different from any they had ever seen. The photographs weren’t clear, so it wasn’t until eleven months later, when British birders Robert Flood and Bryan Thomas managed to go out on the water and clearly film and photograph about 20 of the birds, that the species’ stunning return was confirmed.

For a decade, the species was only seen at sea. In 2013, however, a grant from BirdLife’s Community Conservation Fund allowed researchers to track the petrels to Little Barrier (or Hauturu in Maori) Island. The island is considered a model conservation site and was cleared of cats in 1980, and rats in 2004. Without these conservation measures, it’s unlikely the petrel would have been rediscovered, or even remained alive in modern times.


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