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"Extinct" Booby Exposed -- Found "Masked," Using Alias

Matt Kaplan
for National Geographic News
August 11, 2009
 
Disguises and aliases might seem like the stuff of spy movies, but real-world scientific sleuths have rediscovered an "extinct" bird living under a false name and wearing a mask.

The Tasman booby has had it rough. It started when humans learned that the booby was easy to catch and tasty to eat.

Native to small islands off Australia and New Zealand, the species was dealt its first near fatal blow around A.D. 1200, when Polynesian settlers on Norfolk Island (map) hunted it to the brink of extinction.

Yet the Tasman booby managed to survive in one small population on Lord Howe Island (map) for another 500 years.

Then trouble came again, in the form of hungry European sailors, who were thought to have wiped out every last Tasman booby—until now.

(Related: "'Extinct' Bird Seen, Eaten.")


Who Was That Masked Booby?

Researchers had long suspected that the "extinct" Tasman booby and the living masked booby of the North Tasman Sea were closely related. The birds have similar male and female body shapes and characteristically long wings, for starters.

But it was only when a group of naturalists, paleontologists, and geneticists pooled their expertise that these suspicions could be put to the test, said Tammy Steeves of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, who led the new study.

The researchers compared fossilized and modern bones and DNA from specimens identified as Tasman and masked boobies.

Physically, the fossil bones looked strikingly similar to their modern counterparts. More important, the DNA was a perfect match, Steeves said.

The Tasman booby, the study suggests, never actually went extinct.

The bird's been hanging out for the past few hundred years under the "assumed" name of the masked booby.

The double-naming came about, Steeves said, "because paleontologists and biologists in recent decades did not communicate."

The fossil experts unknowingly compared ancient bones of female Tasman boobies to those of male "masked boobies." Unaware that Tasman booby females are markedly bigger than males, the paleontologists assumed they were looking at two species.

Rare Treat

Before the study, Steeves had expected the obviously similar species would be exposed as close evolutionary cousins.

"Imagine my surprise when we found that they were identical!" she said. "It's a rare treat to uncover such a definitive result.

"Many rediscoveries of 'extinct' birds are the result of an intensive search in the field, but ours is a little different," Steeves added. "We are the first to rediscover a bird in the laboratory."

Findings to be published tomorrow in the journal Biology Letters.
 

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