Ivory-billed woodpecker not extinct after all

The ivory-billed woodpecker wasn't extinct after all, just very shy. And it's not the only creature to come back from the dead, says Michael McCarthy
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The Independent Online

There was jubilation last month at the news that one of the world's most charismatic birds, the ivory-billed woodpecker of the southern USA, had been rediscovered after half a century of presumed extinction. Texts and e-mails were filled with exclamation marks. The ivory-bill! Found again!! Yessss!!! A senior member of the Audubon Society, the august presiding voice of American ornithology, felt moved to suggest that the rediscovery of Campephilus principalis was "like finding Elvis".

There was jubilation last month at the news that one of the world's most charismatic birds, the ivory-billed woodpecker of the southern USA, had been rediscovered after half a century of presumed extinction. Texts and e-mails were filled with exclamation marks. The ivory-bill! Found again!! Yessss!!! A senior member of the Audubon Society, the august presiding voice of American ornithology, felt moved to suggest that the rediscovery of Campephilus principalis was "like finding Elvis".

It was not just the magnificence of the great bird itself, but the fact that people thought it had been lost for ever that brought about such joy. The ivory-bill had not been seen in the wild for 61 years.

Such an occurrence, however remarkable, is by no means unique. In recent decades a number of birds, mammals, fish, insects and plants which have been considered extinct have been reborn, Lazarus-like.

The most spectacular example is a fish. Palaeontologists only knew about the coelacanth, a primitive species predating the dinosaurs, from the fossil record. They were interested in it because its limb-like pectoral and pelvic fins possibly linked it to the first fish that came ashore, 360 million years ago. However, the coelacanth was thought to have been wiped out well before the dinosaurs - probably 65 million years ago. It was only when a South African trawler hauled one up in its nets off the port of East London on 23 December 1938 that it was discovered never to have gone away. The existence of a thriving coelacanth population was later established.

The coelacanth was the zoological find of the 20th century, but not far behind was the cahow, or Bermudan petrel (Pterodroma cahow). When the first European explorers came to Bermuda in the early 16th century, this wide-ranging seabird was abundant in the island group but was widely killed for food. It was thought extinct as early as 1621.

However, in 1951, several pairs of the birds were discovered breeding on small islets in Bermuda's Castle Harbour. By then the species was indeed close to extinction; a 10-year search turned up just 18 pairs. Since then, intensive conservation management of the breeding sites has brought about slow but steady growth to more than 40 pairs.

Birds of tropical forests are much more likely to be presumed extinct if their numbers are small. Two recent examples of rediscovery in these smaller species have been made in India. One was Jerdon's courser, (Rhinoptilus bitorquatus) a nocturnal, plover-like long-legged bird found in southern Andhra Pradesh, which was first recorded in the 19th century. The final authenticated sighting was in 1900, and then, for decade after decade, nothing. But, in 1985-86, another survey distributed pictures and notes on the bird in several local languages. In January 1986, a local man brought in a dying Jerdon's courser to the researchers.

The other celebrated Indian rediscovery came 10 years later with the rediscovery of the forest spotted owlet (Athene blewitti), a species known from only a handful of 19th-century records from the central part of the subcontinent.

Like small birds, small mammals can also hide away in thick forests. There have been two cases of this in Australia in recent years. One was of the mahogany glider (Petaurus gracilis), a type of flying squirrel from Queensland described in the 19th century but then believed extinct for 106 years until 1989. The other was of the dibbler (Antechinus apicalis), a small marsupial discovered in 1987 after a gap of 83 years. In both cases, the animals' habitats had been widely destroyed, but small numbers of the species were discovered clinging on in what remained.

But it's not just the exotic or tropical corners of the earth that produce what we might call Lazarus species. Britain has a splendid one, the military orchid, Orchis militaris. This beautiful pale purple bloom, whose small flowers can be said to resemble tiny helmeted soldiers, had long been a favourite, but was thought to be extinct by 1902. Then, in 1947, the botanist Ted Lousley rediscovered while picnicking in the Chilterns.

In the last 400 years, it is thought that 116 species of bird, 82 species of mammal and another 100-150 vertebrates of all kinds have become extinct, along with perhaps 400 invertebrate species and hundreds of species of plants. But there will undoubtedly be more cases of returns from the dead. We know that life can be extremely vulnerable - yet we forget how stubbornly it can persist.

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