BirdLife: The Magazine Jan-Mar 2018 - Page 39

species… It was time to engage in a different brand of detective work: DNA analysis. This provided overwhelming support for Fishpool’s suspicion that Liberian Greenbul was actually, after all, Icterine Greenbul. Fishpool confesses to feeling slightly sad that Liberian Greenbul was never a valid species. “Had it been so, there would have been stronger grounds for pursuing the protection of Cavalla Forest – an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area that is home to 20 globally threatened birds and mammals,“ says Fishpool. Nevertheless, he is philosophical about the greenbul’s demise: “We have more than enough valid conservation targets to worry about.” The greenbul saga recalls the case of an even more controversial African landbird. Discovered in Somalia in 1989, Bulo Burti Boubou Laniarius liberatus disconcerted some museum ornithologists by being described from a live bird rather than the dead specimen traditionally demanded as evidence. This individual – the only one known – was then transferred to a German aviary before being returned to Somalia. Seventeen years later, molecular biologists showed Bulo Burti Boubou to be a previously unrecorded colour morph of Somali Boubou Laniarius nigerrimus rather than a distinct species. This particular bush-shrike was as much boo-boo as boubou. Roger Safford, BirdLife International’s Senior Programme Manager for Preventing Extinctions, was involved in another particularly eye- opening discovery. Surveying an isolated Ethiopian grassland in the 1990s, he and his colleagues picked up a roadkill nightjar. They later described it as a new species, Nechisar Nightjar Caprimulgus solala, on the basis of the Jan-Mar 2018 • birdlife Lincoln Fishpool looking over specimens of Golden Whistler Pachycephala pectoralis Photo Nigel Collar 4 7 Two specimens of the disputed species, Blue- wattled Bulbul Pycnonotus nieuwenhuisii Photo Nigel Collar the nechisar nightjar was described as a new species on the basis of a single wing single wing salvaged. “Although palaeontologists do it all the time, this was the first bird species in modern times described from such an incomplete specimen”, says Safford. The nightjar’s subsequent history is no less obscure than its bizarre discovery. There has never been a confirmed sighting. Although a book recounts the tale of a purported rediscovery in 2009, no evidence has been presented to verify this: there is no photograph, unequivocal video or sound-recording. This particular enigma has dissipated back into the African night. Even experts sometimes get it plain wrong – spectacularly in the case of Bluntschli’s Vanga Hypositta perdita. Ferreting among specimens collected by a Swiss anatomist 60 years earlier in south-east Madagascar, a German museum curator discovered two unidentified nestlings. In 1996, he described them as a new species, Bluntschli’s Vanga. “Many ornithologists were unconvinced, thinking it was actually the unknown juvenile of Nuthatch Vanga Hypositta corallirostris,” says Safford. “But the feet were wrong for a tree-climbing vanga.” It took DNA analysis to reveal that Bluntschli’s Vanga “was not even a vanga but a juvenile White-throated Oxylabes Oxylabes madagascariensis” – a species in an entirely different family. “The critical error was assuming that the bird was a vanga”, says Safford. “This case teaches us to be open-minded when determining whether a species is new.” 39