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Mystery Seabird

…Not Extinct

(Washington, D.C., February 16, 2012)

A bird species known only from two records and thought possibly to be extinct is again making news. Scientists have announced that they have evidence -- found in the last decade but only recently confirmed -- of small numbers of Bryan’s Shearwaters on islands in Japan.

The seabird was announced in 2011 as a new species and represented the first new bird species found in the United States in 37 years. It occurred thanks to a sharp-eyed scientist – Dr. Peter Pyle at the Institute for Bird Populations (IBP) – who realized that the specimen lying in a museum drawer for over 50 years and which was collected on Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 1963, had been misidentified. He noted differences in measurements and physical appearance compared to other similar species—observations that were later confirmed by DNA analysis. As a result of his findings, the bird was given the name Bryan’s Shearwater, Puffinus bryani. Another individual was photographed and videotaped on Midway in 1991.

At that time, it was feared by some that Bryan’s Shearwater might be one of those cases where a bird is discovered after already having gone extinct. Fortunately, that now appears likely not to be the case. It was reported at the 39th Annual Meeting of the Pacific Seabird Group, held on Oahu, Hawai‘i this month, that researchers from the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute in Tsukuba, Japan have found six specimens of the species between 1997 and 2011 on the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands, about 620 miles south of Tokyo. DNA testing recently confirmed the scientist’s suspicions that these birds were Bryan’s Shearwaters. Five of the six specimens were carcasses while the sixth was a live bird that died after several months of attempted rehabilitation. "When I found out about these records I was ecstatic," says Pyle. "Not only does it indicate that Bryan's Shearwaters still survives but it suggests where they might breed, the first step to conserving what must be a highly endangered species."

The next step for scientists is to locate breeding colonies on the Japanese islands, and to begin taking steps to eradicate rats there. Three of the six specimens showed evidence of rat predation.

“Non-native rats pose a serious threat to island birds, often preying upon eggs and young. The science of rodent eradication has advanced dramatically in the past few years, and has been quite successfully employed in many places, such as Midway Atoll and the aptly named Rat Island is the Aleutians,” said Dr. George Wallace, Vice President for Oceans and Islands at American Bird Conservancy, the leading Bird Conservation organization in the United States.

Listening devices have also been installed on Midway Atoll where the bird was once seen and on two of the islands in the Bonins where carcasses were found, in hopes of taping the bird’s call.

Researchers rarely discover new species of birds; most of the world’s 9,000-plus species (including about 21 other species of shearwaters) were described before 1900. The majority of new species described since the mid-1900s have been discovered in remote tropical rain and cloud forests, primarily in South America and southeastern Asia. The Bryan’s Shearwater is the first new species to be described from the United States since the Poouli was discovered in the forests of Maui in 1974 and is now extinct.

The ten-inch-long Bryan’s Shearwater is the smallest shearwater known. It is black and white with a black or blue-gray bill and blue legs. It is named after Edwin Horace Bryan, Jr., who was curator of collections at the B.P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu from 1919 until 1968.

4th July 2014