Scientist under attack after he kills bird that took decades to find

  • 258
    Shares


For Christopher Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History, there is nothing like the thrill of finding a mysterious species. Such animals live at the intersection of myth and biology – tantalising researchers with the prospect that they may be real, but eluding trustworthy documentation and closer study. Indeed, last month, Filardi waxed poetic on the hunt for the invisible beasts that none the less walk among us.

“We search for them in earnest but they are seemingly beyond detection except by proxy and story,” he wrote. “They are ghosts, until they reveal themselves in a thrilling moment of clarity and then they are gone again. Maybe for another day, maybe a year, maybe a century.”

Filardi was moved because, scouring what he called “the remote highlands” of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, he had found a bird he had searched more than two decades for: the .

“Described by a single female specimen in the 1920s, two more females brought to collectors by local hunters in the early 1950s, and only glimpsed in the wild once,” he wrote. “Scientists have never observed a male. Its voice and habits are poorly known. Given its history of eluding detection, realistic hopes of finding the bird were slim.”

Yet, defying the odds, Filardi did just that.

After setting mist nets across the forest, he and his team secured a male specimen with a “magnificent all-blue back” and a bright orange face. The discovery brought quite the declaration – “Oh my god, the kingfisher” – and led Filardi to liken it to “a creature of myth come to life”. And then, Filardi killed it – or, in the parlance of scientists, “collected” it.

This wasn’t trophy hunting – but outrage ensued.

“Of course, ‘collect’ means killed, a lame attempt to sanitise the totally unnecessary killing of this remarkable sentient being,” Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, wrote in the Huffington Post. “When will the killing of other animals stop? We need to give this question serious consideration because far too much research and conservation biology is far too bloody and does not need to be.”

The controversy led Audubon – which had previously published a piece innocently titled Moustached Kingfisher Photographed for First Time – to add quite the editor’s note.

“This story has been updated to clarify that the bird was euthanised and the specimen collected,” Audubon wrote. A researcher on Filardi’s team, it added, “told Audubon that they assessed the state of the population and the state of the habitat, and concluded it was substantial and healthy enough that taking the specimen – the only male ever observed by science – would not affect the population’s success”.

Still, to some, finding something only to kill it just seemed twisted.

“These were, indeed, the first-ever photos of the male moustached kingfisher alive,” wrote blogger Chris Matyszczyk at CNET. “It didn’t live much longer.”

Filardi was also compelled to write an op-ed for Audubon: Why I Collected a Moustached Kingfisher.

“I have spent time in remote, and not so remote, forests of the Solomon Islands across nearly 20 years,” he wrote. “I have watched whole populations of birds decline and disappear in the wake of poorly managed logging operations and, more recently mining. On this trip, the real discovery was not finding an individual Moustached Kingfisher, but discovering that the world this species inhabits is still thriving in a rich and timeless way.”

Filardi stressed that, among Guadalcanal locals, the bird is known to be “unremarkably common”. He explained how he and his team made the decision – “neither an easy decision nor one made in the spur of the moment” – to collect the bird with reference to “standard practice for field biologists”. And he said that killing one kingfisher might help save them all.

The moustached kingfisher, which until recently, had only been seen once in the wild by scientists. Photograph: Rob Moyle/University of Kansas

“I have come to know, through firsthand experience, how specimens and other artefacts in museums can over time become sacred,” he wrote. “I have watched sparks ignite in the eyes of Pacific Islanders holding specimens of extinct species doomed by habitat loss, invasive species or disease. I have watched my friends, my colleagues – those I work both for and with – go home and out into the world and make a difference. These moments drive my work. Through a vision shared with my Solomon Island mentors … the Moustached Kingfisher I collected is a symbol of hope and a purveyor of possibility, not a record of loss.”

But was he right?

Wildlife experts have been debating that question for more than 100 years – ever since they first noticed that the colourful and charismatic species they wanted to document had begun to vanish. The pro-collection camp says that the practice requires the death of only a few individuals and may provide knowledge that helps to ensure the survival of the overall species. The “voucher specimen” – a representative specimen used for studies – is considered the gold standard for documenting a species’ presence: it’s the most definitive way to confirm that an animal exists and serves as the basis for all kinds of research on its health and habitat.

But opponents point out that history is littered with the stuffed and mounted carcasses of animals that were the last of their kind, bagged by overzealous collectors who didn’t stop to consider the cost of the kill.

In collecting’s heyday, bagging a rare species was a point of pride for naturalists, and wealthy wildlife lovers amassed taxidermied animals the way another person might accumulate art. Famous scientists like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace collected and preserved hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of specimens – most of which served a vital role in making known to science. But collectors, who travelled to the world’s most remote regions in search of as-yet-unknown animals, also had an Indiana Jones-like swagger.

Competition to find something first was fierce, and institutions vying for new and exotic specimens meant that dozens of researchers would go tramping up mountains and into jungles to kill the same animal.

Among the most famous victims of this is the great auk, a now-extinct North Atlantic bird with a penguin’s tuxedo-like plumage and ungainly waddle (but not much of its DNA – auks are only distantly related to their Southern Hemisphere cousins).

The species was already teetering on the brink when naturalists and museums took an interest in it in the 19th century. Climate change during the northern hemisphere’s several-century cool spell known as the “little ice age” had decimated the population. Humans then finished the job. The birds stood nearly a metre tall and sported thick, plumage, making them a valuable food source and even more valuable commercial product. And its clumsiness on land (and inability to fly) made it an easy target for hunters.

Paradoxically, it was the great auk’s sudden rarity that made scientists so eager to kill them. According to the Smithsonian, the great auk’s classification as endangered in 1775 led to increased demand for specimens – a single bird could be sold for $16 in the early 1800s, a full year’s wages. No longer hunted for its meat and down, the great auk and its eggs became a target for their scientific value. In 1844, a group of fishermen caught two of the birds on a remote island off the Icelandic coast. They were sold to a chemist in Reykjavik, who stuffed and mounted the birds, then preserved their eyes and internal organs like pickles in jars of alcohol. No one on record has seen one of the huge, black-and-white birds since.

A curator holds a stuffed juvenile great auk, which became one of the most famous victims of the drive to find ever-more exotic specimens. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

This anecdote was cited in a controversial article for the journal Science last spring. Under the headline Avoiding (Re)extinction, four biologists cautioned against collection of rare species. The practice “can magnify the extinction risk for small and often isolated populations”, the authors wrote, encouraging alternative forms of documentation like DNA samples, photographs and sound recordings.

Ben Minteer, an ethicist at Arizona State University’s school of life sciences and the lead author of the article, told NPR that he doesn’t think scientific collecting is a leading driver of extinction – there would have to be millions of researchers bagging birds every day to match the job that climate change, habitat destruction and over-exploitation have done on at-risk populations. But in cases where a species is near extinction, a few deaths in the name of science can have a major impact on the overall population, he said, and stricter codes on what species can be collected are necessary.

“It’s one thing for a community to say, ‘Look, we have a code of ethics, we abide by it, no responsible biologist would ever do this,’” he said in 2014. “You know, we think that those are all good things and good statements but it’s harder to actually create a sort of ethical culture in the field when no one’s looking – when no one’s watching.”

The article raised the hackles of many in the scientific community. In the next month’s issue of Science, more than 100 biologists signed multiple response letters in defence of collecting.

“Our goal should be to document biodiversity and rigorously as possible through carefully planned collections so that it can be effectively preserved and understood,” one letter read. “Specimens from such collections and their associated data are essential for making informed decisions about management and conservation now and in the future.”

The letter pointed out that species collections can lead to unexpected findings – famously, a discovery that recent eggshells were thinner than older ones at a British museum alerted Europeans to the dangers of DDT in the 1960s – and that scientists have come a long way from the indiscriminate collecting practices of the 19th century, supporters of collecting argue. Now, researchers must get approval and permits to collect before they even go out in the field. Each request is evaluated based on the distinctiveness of the find and rarity of the species. If a species is unknown to science, or if there aren’t other good museum specimens in existence, then killing and preserving an individual might be the best way to learn more about it.

This, Filardi argues, was the case with the moustached kingfisher. Until now, there were only three specimens in existence, and all of them were female. A modern, male sample will improve scientists’ understanding of the species and its changing environment, he said.

It might also galvanise support for efforts to protect the kingfisher’s island home. Speaking to Scientific American, Filardi said that mining and logging threaten the mountains where the elusive blue-and-yellow birds live, as does climate change. “We still have the potential to steward this big sky island and preserve all of its richness,” he said, but only if conservationists and local governments work out ways to negotiate those threats.

For years, western scientists have referred to the kingfisher as a “ghost” species because they’ve never been able to spot it. But Filardi estimated that thousands of pairs remain in Guadalcanal. The species is not dead yet, he said. It won’t become a ghost unless we let it.

This article first appeared in Guardian Weekly on 17 Oct 2015 and incorporates material from the Washington Post.

 

Subscribe to our FREE Newsletter

 

 

Supertrooper

Founder and Executive Editor

Share this post with your friends

  • 258
    Shares


Facebook Comments

52
Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
avatar
Julie Zickefoose

That would be your opinion, based on your worldview. You have never relied on museum specimens for your research or work, I would guess. "Pretty bauble" has nothing to do with their value to science. And nobody pays for specimens. They're taken for research purposes.

Gerard Rolin

How can a "scientist" act in such a "stupid" way? This species is not new to science as 3 females are already kept in museums and I think there was no need for keeping a stuffed male in a collection. When such a species is rediscovered, the rule should be that no specimen will be collected and that eveything will be done to ensure its protection and I don't think it was absolutely necessary to kill it to help conservationists.

Simon Tucker

That is, they will retain a dried skin for morons to gawp at. Absolutely no use to anyone as a single skin: no meaningful statistics at all.

Simon Tucker

Nathan Swick From your spelling I see that you are an American – that explains so much. Killing wildife seems to be the favourite pastime of you and your countrymen so no wonder you don't care about just one kingfisher. Been out shooting Black Bears in Florida this week have you?

Simon Tucker

He is still using antiquated methods and only collected this bird out of either ego or as a pretty bauble for his paymasters to keep them funding his habit.

Simon Tucker

Nathan Swick What insights will future scientists get from either a dried and preserved skin or a stuffed exhibit, which is the undoubted fate of this specimen? Traditional taxonomy, using collected skins and biometrics incorrectly split Redpoll into 5 species. DNA analysis has lumped them back to 2. You are a Luddite and the sooner your kind of "scientist" is consigned to the dustbin of history the better.

Karl D. Tarratt

'the only male ever observed by science' Regardless of how many individuals he precieved there to be, he had no indication of the exact numbers, no indication of the male to female ratio or if the breading population was fit and healthy, for all he knows this may have been the last healthy male specimen alive.

Karl D. Tarratt

'the only male ever observed by science' Regardless of how many individuals he precieved there to be, he had no indication of the exact numbers, no indication of the male to female ratio or if the breading population was fit and healthy, for all he knows this may have been the last healthy male specimen alive.

Karen Crawford

Julie Zickefoose : never have , never will .

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

well said and word, karen!

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

well said and word, karen!

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

Karen Crawford thank you karen

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

Karen Crawford thank you karen

Lisa Huskisson

Well he or she WAS until that knob murdered him / her x

Tara Wikramanayake

Why kill any species? For research, (if absolutely necessary), the bird/animal could be caught/tranquilised and DNA extracted- then released to the wild.

Nathan Swick

Punished by whom? What laws did he break?

Nathan Swick

Do yourself a favor and look into the background of this "self-important little turd" and his very long track record protecting birds of this underappreciated and overexploited part of the world before you lob uninformed opinions about something you do not understand in the slightest.

Nathan Swick

Would that the logging and mining interests looking to exploit the Solomon Islands could show as much deference to "Nature" as Filardi does.

Nathan Swick

Simon Tucker – You said "generally condemnatory", which implies that the significant majority of researchers disagree with Filardi's actions. That's simply not true. If you're going to lob accusations of dishonesty, perhaps you should refrain from conspiracy theories about his "closest allies" and his sponsors. Again, photographs are limited, but a specimen kept properly will not degrade over time. As someone that has worked a bit in collections it's actually remarkable how well even very old specimens hold up when properly cared for, so you're as incorrect about that as you are about the state of taxonomy. While you're looking… Read more »

Nathan Swick

No, the museum is not a private collector. It's a research institution.

If you are unable to tell the difference, then you are unable to have an honest conversation about this issue.

Nathan Swick

No, the museum is not a private collector. It's a research institution.

If you are unable to tell the difference, then you are unable to have an honest conversation about this issue.

Simon Tucker

And the museum that will "benefit" isn't a private collector? If the aforesadi Great Auks were on public display you would approve of their having been collected. You are one sick puppy with some incredibly lightweight arguments – do you work in PR?

Simon Tucker

Nathan Swick I never said all scientists were condemnatory but a great many are: straw man argument and dishonest. Naturally his closest allies will be the people that do the same job as him. Photographic colours are a hell of a lot more stable than those in natural structures tha degrade over time. Taxonomy is primarily a genetics game these days – blood, tissue and feather samples are plenty for that purpose. The whole Redpoll super-species has been reclassified this year on the basis of DNA analysis. As for not knowing what future scientists will need: if they haven't hunted… Read more »

Jacqueline Greene

It breaks my heart that birds (or any animal) that are rare and perhaps facing extinction are "collected" (killed and stuffed/studied) rather than allowing them to live and perhaps help continue the species. I think a new protocol should be developed wherein photographic and audible evidence, with detailed notes of their habits in nature, would be considered sufficient to 'capture' the unique qualities of the subject.

Grace Neff

Such a pretty little Bird.

Marilyn-Brian Ashman

I just wish, that humans would leave Nature Alone!!. All Creatures belong, and have a right, to live on this Planet without the Interference of humans!!
Such Beautiful Birds, and yet it takes one ""IDIOT'S"" attempt to decimate them!! .

Julie Zickefoose

Ever used a museum specimen for bird study? I thought not.

Julie Zickefoose

Duncan Wright made an excellent if acerbic rebuttal (http://10000birds.com/comments-on-collecting-birds-a-reply.htm) of the kinds of accusations being leveled at ornithologist Christopher FIlardi on the 10,000 Birds Blog. Here's an excerpt, with just a few of Filardi's accomplishments. "“He has, among other things, studied foraging behavior of palm cockatoos in Papua New Guinea in an effort to expand CITES protection; worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society to set up one of the first community-based wildlife reserves in the country; and studied radiations of Pacific birds to clarify boundaries among species and begin unraveling the origins of pan-Pacific bird groups. Throughout his professional career,… Read more »

Lisa Huskisson

Murdering bastard ! How dare that umbicle try and rationalise the fact that he killed an innocent creature ! ' Collected ' indeed ! "the Moustached Kingfisher I collected is a symbol of hope and a purveyor of possibility, not a record of loss.” Well the poor little kingfisher that he ' collected' did lose, he lost his life !
Christoper Filardi is nothing but a self important little turd, trying to get some noteriety. Well he is nothing but a cowardly murderer !

Karen Crawford

. Mr. Filardi killed this beautiful bird so he would have proof that he found it and get credit for finding it . I am sick and tired of hearing sickos who kill animals say that they did it to preserve the species. What a load of crap. You can call it what you want a " specimen " but the bottom line is this lovely and beautiful bird was killed so that it can join all the other specimens of birds in a museum somewhere – just disgusting ! Filardi should just have filmed and documented finding this lovely… Read more »

Karen Crawford

What a terrific poem, Karen.

Nathan Swick

Photography is not a replacement for a whole bird specimen. Field conditions, expertise of the photographer, and even type of equipment affect the quality and color of a photograph. Computer monitors need to be precisely calibrated to accurately display the individual photograph and that is impossible to do universally. A specimen that can be studied in a controlled environment solves all these problems.

Peter Deelen

I say do the same whit this bastard he is a criminal en must be punishd This ugly monster !!!!!!!

Peter Deelen

I say do the same whit this bastard he is a criminal en must be punishd This ugly monster !!!!!!!

Leigh Lofgren

He could have taken all the photos he wanted with the bird alive – how sick and twisted are people like this? Very difficult to comprehend and very sad.

Frank Renfrow

Opposition to this sort of thing goes way back. Here in Ohio I remember Worth Randle’s favorite saying was “I would like to make a study skin of Milton Troutman”, who was a notorious over-collector of birds. 🙂

Nathan Swick

Probably not. But he will at least understand the justification for it.

Karen Lyons Kalmenson

when the spacemen
collect scientists
and kill them
in science's name
the idiot who killed the bird
will no longer like the
rules of the game!!!!!!

Dona Tracy

Congraulations to the scientist. He must be VERY proud of himself. As to this statement “This story has been updated to clarify that the bird was euthanised and the specimen collected,” Etuhanised? You have to be kidding me. What misery was the bird in to require mercy killing?

Nathan Swick

What evidence do you have that they are "struggling to make a comeback"?

This species is poorly known to western researchers because it's highly localized in an area that is difficult to access, but there's no reason to think it's particularly uncommon there.

It's important that its precense is documented thoroughly, as the logging and mining interests in the region are absolutely not going to leave them alone.

Michele Jankelow

What a jerk! The species are probably struggling to make a comeback! Honestly the name scientist is grossly and opportunistically abused! The age of the species hunters should be over. Leave them alone to live their lives as nature intended!

Nathan Swick

That's not correct. The species still exists in the highland forests of Guadalcanal. The single collected individual is absolutely not the last one.

Nathan Swick

No, this bird will not be mounted for the public. It will be placed in a climate-controlled storage facility with the rest of the bird collections, to be accessed only by researchers.

Nathan Swick

Referencing the Great Auk is not comparable. The last individuals of that species were *not* taken by scientists, they were taken by private collectors. To this day no one knows where they are.

Simon Tucker

There is no excuse for the historical revisionism of the fluffy-bunny brigade: prior to environmental awareness and the rise of the conservation movement, collecting was not frowned upon and they are the basis of most existing museum collections. The advent of photography, to make the collecting of wildlife for display unnecessary, and DNA testing techniques, to enable the identification of species from blood and tissue samples without killing, has rendered the "collecting" of specimens as unnecessary. This is the "crime" of this idiot: but it is not surprising given the continuing contempt for wildlife in virtually every country in the… Read more »

Julie Zickefoose

It's grossly unfair, I think, to open the entire idea of scientific collection up to a tribunal of the deeply uninformed, who describe scientists as "sordid sick people" who write "senseless papers" to present to "some morbid conference of the sick minds." Oh. Hadn't realized all scientists were sordid and sick. Yet I'd imagine that in other arenas, say, climate change, the same people would clamor that we "listen to the scientists." Hmm. We adulate scientists when we need them, denigrate them when our emotions and sensibilties are offended. Let's think about that, about data collection, about documenting the presence,… Read more »

Moira Banks

Oh great we can look at this beautiful bird in a museum! No sorry it is wildlife, to live in the wild in a natural habitat. I still think this is 'trophy hunting' but sanitised in the name of science.

Cindra Broenner

you took it upon yourself overall…and now even though there is a picture,this rare species of a kingfisher, no longer exist……so what was the point?

Doris Charles

A beautiful Bird why kill it photo it and let it go.