When I started writing this post I spent a couple of days reading articles and taking notes about the subject. At the end of the day I had too much information to be included in a single posting. I have therefore decided to launch a series that will be divided into three parts. In Part I I will talk about the reasons why a species once thought extinct, returns. Part II will be an historical account of some species of birds from Peru, the Neotropical region and the world that at some point were "lost" or considered extinct. Finally, in Part III I will discuss bird species in the Neotropical region that are considered lost species waiting to be rediscovered.
Part I: Why we Rediscover Lost and Extinct Birds?
In recent months we have witnessed the rediscovery of two species of birds thought to be extinct – the Fiji Petrel and the Banggai Crow. How it is possible that a species believed to be extinct is rediscovered?
One explanation for the rediscovery of bird species relates to the way that many species are initially described, using the skins of birds collected by naturalists during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many of these skins were not immediately reviewed when collected and have remained in storage, unstudied for decades. Only when a researcher takes these specimens out years later are new species recognized. This happened with Kaempfer’s (Caatinga) Woodpecker, collected in 1926, recognized as a sub species in 1973 and then elevated to species in 2003. In the more than seventy years that elapsed between collection and description of the species, it was believed that the species had become extinct until the first wild population of this newly recognized species was rediscovered in 2006.
Another reason behind the rediscovery of species is that museums sometimes have skins that are not properly labeled or the true geographic origins of the species are vague or unknown. A good example of this is the case of the Coppery Thorntail, known from two skins collected in 1852 somewhere in Bolivia. This lack of geographic detail as well as the fact that Bolivian boundaries have changed greatly since the time of collection has resulted in the fact that no person has yet seen this species in its habitat. However, the door is open for the possibility of rediscovery.
Confusion about the existence of certain species also arises when there are few specimens available for study. Scientists are challenged to classify whether these rare museum specimens truly represent a distinct species or if they are hybrids of other species. This happened with the White-masked Antibird. Scientists had been doubtful about the existence of the White-masked Antibird until it was recently rediscovered in Peru.
A slightly different scenario than rediscovering a species after it has been labeled extinct is recognizing that an ‘extinct’ species cannot be found because it never existed. Some ‘new’ species have been misidentified and are actually part of an extant species. This is the case with the Red-throated Wood-rail of Peru that went from being considered an extinct species to being dubious taxa by the SACC. The supposed Red-throated Wood-rail is now believed to be a poorly preserved specimen of the Gray-necked Wood-rail. Something similar happened with the Kalinowski’s Tinamou, of which all trace was lost for nearly 100 years until it was "rediscovered" in 2000. However, upon rediscovery, the SACC deemed that this species designation wasn’t valid; the Kalinowski’s Tinamou is now regarded as a synonym of Ornate Tinamou, another species that lives in Peru. A similar occurrence happened in the case of the Tasman Booby, which was believed extinct and now known to be a subspecies of Masked Booby.
In other instances, species that were collected, studied and described as new species in the nineteenth century remain in oblivion because their area of distribution encompasses very remote or inaccessible places where there are no people with the knowledge to identify them in the field. This happened with the Fiji Petrel rediscovered this year and the Chinese Crested Tern rediscovered in 2000 in an inaccessible military zone between China and Taiwan. These species were never really missing or extinct; it is just that people with the knowledge to identify these birds had not traveled to these remote or inaccessible areas.
Chinese Crested Tern © PeiWen Chang
Additionally, some birds are naturally shy and only came out at dawn or night. This was the case with the Imperial Snipe, described in 1869 from a single specimen obtained from the Andes in the vicinity of Bogota, Colombia. It was not seen again until 1967 when it was found in Peru by John Terborgh. There is also the possibility that two bird species can look very much alike, thus making them hard to distinguish in the field. For example, when Beck’s Petrel was rediscovered, the Birds Australia Rarities Committee, having pictures in hand, rejected the bird’s identity because they couldn’t separate this from the Tahiti’s Petrel.
Finally, sometimes a species has become so rare due to hunting, habitat loss or natural reasons, that it becomes almost impossible to find. This may be the case with the controversial Ivory-billed Woodpecker. It was rediscovered in 2004 in the Big Woods area of Arkansas. Although there have been intensive searches throughout the region, until now there is no undisputed record about the species’ survival and the status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker remains undetermined.
Regardless of the amazement and joy at rediscovering a species that was once thought lost, these birds still need extensive protection. Usually these species are critically endangered and need a lot of attention from governments and bird advocates to survive in the long term. Through these rediscoveries nature has given us a second chance and we must do all that is possible to conserve these and other endangered birds as well as their habitats.
There isn’t a second chance for the Carolina Parakeet, it became extinct in 1918
In Part II of this series I’ll examine a case by case account of the latest species that have been rediscovered in Peru, the Neotropical region and the world.