Bird Thought Extinct for 150 Years Makes a Comeback

storm-petrel photo
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Every day, countless threatened and endangered species inch ever closer to the point of extinction -- but it's rare indeed to have one, thought lost to the ages, make such a comeback. For over 150 years, biologists believed a small species of seabird known as the New Zealand Storm Petrels had been wiped out entirely, with only stuffed museum specimens to memorialize their existence. But then, several years ago, eagle-eyed birders caught a chance glimpse of a petrel that looked so similar, reviving hope that the species may be alive yet -- and now, DNA tests have confirmed it.When, in 2003, bird-watchers spotted the distinctly colored New Zealand storm petrel, it seemed to be the first appearance of the rare bird since the 1850s -- but biologists had their doubts. As the years passed, sightings of these birds became more frequent, leading some to suspect that they were merely an oddly colored varient of a more common species. After all, how could the storm petrels have continued to survive and breed for 150 years without anyone noticing? But that's just what they did.

Recently, University of Otago biologist Bruce Robertson collected a DNA sample from one such mystery bird and compared it to the only known specimens of New Zealand storm petrel, on display in museums in Europe along with other 'extinct' birds. And sure enough, they matched.


That confirms that the birds in the gulf are the same as those last seen in the 1800s, and that the New Zealand storm petrel is a distinct species. "I think that's pretty huge," Robertson said. He hopes this breakthrough will trigger official conservation funding. But the Department of Conservation says the bird will stay in the "data deficient" category - which receives relatively little funding - until scientists know where it breeds and how big the population is.

This isn't the first time that birds once considered extinct in New Zealand were found to still be alive, though never had one managed to go unseen for as long as the storm petrel. Fortunately, since the birds' last appearance over a century ago, the importance of conservation and preserving endangered species has improved immensely. So with the right protection, the storm petrel needn't go 'extinct' again.

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