Science

A bird thought to be extinct 140 years ago has been rediscovered in Papua New Guinea.

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In the world, several rare regions have a species evolution that is completely different from the rest of the world. Most theories put forward suggest that this difference is due to how these regions broke away from the primitive proto-Gondwanan continent approximately 750 million years ago. Today, these regions are still fraught with mysteries, according to scientists who still find many species there. Most recently, American ornithologists took extremely rare pictures of the black-necked pheasant pigeon, officially extinct 140 years ago, in the steep forests of Papua New Guinea. Stunned by this revelation, experts compared the find to that of a unicorn.

East Gondwana (covering South Africa, East Antarctica, Australia, India, Madagascar, Arabia, New Guinea, North and South China, Indochina and the Tarim Basin) separated from the supercontinent Rodinia 750 million years ago. With drift, some of these regions were more or less isolated, and a completely different evolution of species took place in them than in most other regions of the Earth. Many of these species have, in particular, very old taxa that they would have retained from Gondwana, including the lemurs (the most ancestral group among current primates) of Madagascar, true “Gondwanan relics”.

Due to their isolation, these regions are characterized by exceptional biodiversity and a high degree of endemicity. On the other hand, their common geological history gives them a more or less common evolution of species, and the same species may sometimes be found there, despite great geographical distances. New Guinea (and a few islands around) is home to the largest plant diversity in the world – for example, it shares some species with Madagascar that are found nowhere else in the world, such as Eulophidium, a genus of terrestrial orchids.

Today, scientists still do not fully understand the fascinating and complex biodiversity of these regions, which are still the subject of many discoveries. Their primary forests do contain living fossils that may date back to the Carboniferous, as well as species thought to have been extinct for at least a century. In Papua New Guinea, an expedition led by researchers from the American Bird Conservation Organization discovered images of a black-haired pheasant dove, last recorded in 1882.

The famous flightless bird, about the size of a rooster, has a wide, laterally compressed tail, which makes it very similar to a pheasant. The expedition was, in particular, initiated after reports from local hunters who reported seeing the bird several times over several years, while scientific archives testified to the contrary.

This species will only live on the small steep island of Fergusson in the Antrecasto archipelago, east of Papua New Guinea. The video, filmed by American researchers, was the first in 140 years to capture the animal. “After a month of research, seeing these first photographs of a pheasant dove was like finding a unicorn,” enthuses John S. Mittermeier, director of the Lost Birds program at the American Bird Conservancy and one of the leaders of the “control service”. “This is the moment you dream of all your life as an ecologist and ornithologist,” he adds.

The chance of seeing the bird again is less than 1%.

In an attempt to capture the bird in its natural environment, the expedition’s researchers set up 12 camera traps in several areas of the island where locals reported seeing the bird. Namely, that several members of the team, as well as another expeditionary group in 2019, already tried to see the animal in advance, but in vain. To do this, they also relied on the testimony of residents.

After several weeks of perseverance and information gathering, the testimony of Augustine Gregory, a hunter from the village of Duda Ununa, west of Mount Kilkerran, became decisive for the expedition. The hunter actually saw and heard the bird several times in an area with steep ridges and valleys, not far from his village. The research team then installed the cameras for a month in a particularly dense thicket on a steep ridge 1,000 meters above sea level, near the Kvama River.

The researchers reportedly turned to this particular example because residents of the western slopes of Mount Kilkerran, the village of Duda-Ununa, gave the bird the nickname “auwo”, indicating more interaction with the animal than anywhere else on the island. In addition to 12 camera traps, eight more cameras were installed in the places recommended by the hunter Grigory.

To their surprise, two days before the end of the expedition, the researchers saw footage of the bird striding right in front of the camera. According to experts, the probability of obtaining these images was less than 1%. In addition, the steep forests of the small island made the conditions of the expedition particularly difficult. Although researchers still know very little about this species, the population of this bird is likely to be very small and in decline, going unnoticed for many years. It is even possible that the small, hard-to-reach forest of Mount Kilkerran is their last habitat on Earth.

The video shows very rare footage of a black-necked pheasant pigeon. © American Bird Conservation

“In addition to the hope of finding other lost species, the detailed information gathered by the team formed the basis for the conservation of this extremely rare bird, which should indeed be endangered, as well as other species unique to Fergusson. Island,” says Roger Safford, head of the extinction prevention program at BirdLife International.

The discovery of this species would be a strong argument in favor of conservation measures in the area. Moreover, according to the scientists of the expedition, the locals were very enthusiastic about the idea of ​​preserving this species, which was considered extinct more than 100 years ago. Including premises can also be a wise choice for the effectiveness of conservation strategies.

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