Skip to content

‘Like Discovering a Unicorn’: Researchers Rediscover the Black-Naped Pheasant-Pigeon, a Fowl Misplaced to Science for 140 Years


    For a month the researchers had traversed slender mountain ridges, crossed and re-crossed rivers that roared by way of canyons cloaked in tropical forest, and endured bloodthirsty mosquitoes and leeches, all looking for one thing that in all probability didn’t exist. That they had simply hours left for looking out earlier than they needed to depart Fergusson Island, off the east coast of Papua New Guinea. Expedition co-leader Jordan Boersma reckoned their probability of success was lower than 1 %.

    Winded from a climb, he plopped down on a lush hillside to catch his breath and started trying by way of photographs on the digital camera traps he’d simply collected, not anticipating to seek out something. “Abruptly I used to be confronted with this picture of what at the moment felt like a legendary creature,” says Boersma, a postdoctoral researcher on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “It was, with out exaggeration, essentially the most surreal second of my life.” 

    The digital camera’s show was tiny, however there was no mistaking the creature it confirmed: the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon, a species that hasn’t been documented by scientists because it was first described in 1882.

    “To seek out one thing that’s been gone for that lengthy, that you simply’re pondering is sort of extinct, after which to determine that it’s not extinct, it appears like discovering a unicorn or a Bigfoot,” says John C. Mittermeier, director of the misplaced birds program at American Fowl Conservancy and a co-leader of the eight-member expedition. “It’s terribly uncommon.” 

    The gorgeous late-September rediscovery couldn’t have occurred with out steering from native hunters with intimate information of the island’s forests, the researchers say, demonstrating the invaluable position of Indigenous communities in ongoing efforts to relocate species misplaced to Western science. With its existence confirmed, the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon is sort of definitely the most endangered fowl in New Guinea, which underscores the pressing want to guard its habitat on Fergusson, a rugged, 555-square-mile island that, whereas largely undeveloped, faces strain from logging firms. 

    From left: Jason Gregg, Elimo Malesa, and Jordan Boersma give a presentation in regards to the pheasant-pigeon in Bosalewa neighborhood in East Fergusson. The expedition group labored intently with native communities on Fergusson Island to lift consciousness in regards to the pheasant-pigeon and get details about folks’s observations of the fowl. Picture: John C. Mittermeier

    “This can be a big discovery,” says Bulisa Iova, an expedition member and performing chief curator of the Nationwide Museum and Artwork Gallery in Papua New Guinea. “I’ve studied birds for a few years, and to be a part of this group to find this misplaced species is a spotlight for me.”

    The expedition was a part of The Seek for Misplaced Birds, a collaboration between BirdLife Worldwide, Re:wild, and American Fowl Conservancy, which funded the journey. The initiative goals to rediscover greater than 150 avian species that haven’t been declared extinct but additionally haven’t been seen for at the least a decade. 

    A chicken-size, ground-dwelling pigeon, the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon was amongst round 20 “misplaced” birds that haven’t been documented for greater than a century. It’s certainly one of 4 pheasant-pigeon species discovered round New Guinea, and lives solely on Fergusson Island. (Some authorities contemplate the 4 varieties to be subspecies.)

    The group traveled inland to Duda Ununa in hopes of discovering details about the pheasant-pigeon amongst communities additional away from the coast. Picture: John C. Mittermeier

    Boersma beforehand looked for the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon in 2019 with Jason Gregg, a conservation biologist and Audubon journal contributor, and native biologist Doka Nason. Whereas the trio didn’t discover the fowl on that journey, they did flip up 5 fowl species not beforehand recognized to reside on Fergusson, which steered there have been vital gaps in what ornithologists knew in regards to the island’s birdlife. And after they spoke with hunters, they heard stories of a fowl whose description might solely belong to the pheasant-pigeon.

    The researchers returned to Fergusson with a bigger group in early September, decided to determine belief and work intently with the island’s Indigenous inhabitants to seek out the species. Day after day they hiked the steep terrain, stopping to interview locals and sleeping in villages or tenting within the forest. Hunters within the first few communities have been unfamiliar with the big fowl the researchers described. However when the group reached the distant western slope of Mt. Kilkerran, they started to satisfy villagers who acknowledged the species and referred to it by the title Auwo.

    On the ultimate day of a month-long search, Jordan Boersma reveals Doka Nason a picture of the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon, recognized domestically as Auwo. Video: Jordan Boersma

    Lastly, within the village of Duda Ununa, a hunter named Augustin Gregory instructed the researchers the place he had seen the fowl. He described a name that matched these of New Guinea’s different pheasant-pigeon species, which don’t reside on Fergusson. And he confirmed the group an space, on a ridge 3,200 ft above sea stage and coated in thick vegetation, the place their motion-triggered digital camera traps have been prone to snap the elusive fowl. Nason, who grew up in Papua New Guinea close to Fergusson, and who Boersma describes as “essentially the most spectacular area biologist I’ve labored with anyplace,” chosen a spot and arrange the digital camera.

    With its vantage restricted by dense understory, the location wasn’t a typical one for a digital camera entice, the scientists say, however the photographs proved it was the precise one. “Unmistakable,” Gregg, an expedition co-leader, says of first seeing the images. “Tons of combined feelings. All the pieces from solemn aid of burden to fist-pumping and screaming.” 

    Solely days later, with time to scroll by way of all the pieces the traps had captured, did the group understand that one other digital camera had recorded video of a pheasant-pigeon. On condition that the photographs have been taken a number of kilometers aside, they virtually definitely present two people. 

    Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon caught on digital camera, possible a second particular person. Picture: Doka Nason/American Fowl Conservancy

    Now that scientists know the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon nonetheless exists, the main target turns into protecting the critically endangered species from going extinct. As with different once-lost birds, its inhabitants is probably going very small and significantly imperiled. Logging by worldwide firms seems to be a rising menace, and launched predators reminiscent of feral cats might take a toll on the pheasant-pigeon as they’ve on different endemic island birds, in response to Gregg. Sustaining the long-lost species would require studying extra about its habits and inhabitants standing and launching conservation tasks to guard its habitat, all with Fergusson Island residents in a number one position.

    “Figuring out what we learn about fowl extinction and conservation on islands all over the world, we will anticipate that the mix of logging and launched species, particularly launched mammals, goes to have an effect,” Gregg says. “This land and the destiny of any conservation work that occurs on this land is totally as much as the communities that reside there and personal the land.”

    Past Fergusson Island’s luxuriant forests, the rediscovery of the Black-naped Pheasant-Pigeon raises hopes that future expeditions will flip up different species misplaced to science however recognized all alongside to native specialists. “The best way this was all the time going to work is that we simply actually lean into native information and put our religion in our native companions,” Boersma says. “That’s what delivered this unbelievable second for us.”