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TWO RECENT ARTICLES REMINDED ME of a Katherine Rundell quote three days ago here at SimanaitisSays—and also of a conversation with a fellow college professor some fifty years ago. Andy McGlashen’s Audubon headline, November 17, 2022, reads “ ‘Like Finding a Unicorn’: Researchers Rediscover the Black-Naped Pheasant-Pigeon, a Bird Lost to Science for 140 Years.” And Graeme Green wrote in The Guardian, also on November 17, “Lost and Found: How a Single Clue Led to the Rediscovery of a Crab Not Seen for 225 Years.”
In a way, I shouldn’t be surprised that these two articles jog my memory about something cited only a few days ago. But my recollection of 50 years is something else entirely.
First, the recent discoveries.
Afzelius’s Crab. Graeme Green notes in The Guardian, “Tracking down rare species believed to be extinct is never easy, but when Pierre A. Mvogo Ndongo travelled to Sierra Leone in January 2021 to search for ‘lost’ species of land-dwelling crabs, the feeling of looking for a needle in a haystack was particularly powerful due to the size of the ‘haystack.’ For one of the species, Afzelius’s crab (Afrithelphusa afzelii), last seen in 1796, the only clue was the label on a specimen that simply said: ‘Sierra Leone.’ ”
Green continued, “Mvogo Ndongo’s expedition was primarily looking for the rainbow-coloured, land-dwelling Sierra Leone crab Afrithelphusa leonensis, lost to science for 65 years and thought to be possibly extinct—one of the species on wildlife charity Re:wild’s 25 ‘most wanted lost species‘ list. He also hoped—but never expected—to find Afzelius’s crab (Afrithelphusa afzelii).”
Fieldwork and Good Fortune. “For three weeks,” Green says, “working alongside local communities in Sierra Leone’s northern, southern and south-eastern provinces, Mvogo Ndongo found only false leads and frustration.”
“Afrithelphusa afzelii hadn’t been seen for 225 years,” Mvogo Ndongo says. “We deduced it must have been collected within walking distance of Freetown, so we began our surveys in the forest in that vicinity. But this was still too vague.”
Then, Mvogo Ndongo says they got lucky: “One man took us to his farm on the edge of the forest where, after intense searching, the species was rediscovered.”
Facing an impending Covid-19 lockdown, Mvogo Ndongo and his team were also able to add the hitherto lost Afrithelphusa leonensis as well as two new species of freshwater crabs.
Hardly Your Regular Pigeon. Andy McGlashen, Senior Editor, Audubon Magazine, writes, “A successful expedition in Papua New Guinea captured photos and video of the chicken-size pigeon, highlighting the value of local ecological knowledge as scientists seek out other long-missing species.”
McGlashen writes, “Expedition co-leader Jordan Boersma reckoned their chance of success was less than 1 percent. Winded from a climb, he plopped down on a lush hillside to catch his breath and began looking through images on the camera traps he’d just collected, not expecting to find anything.”
“Suddenly I was confronted with this image of what at that time felt like a mythical creature,” says Boersma, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “It was, without exaggeration, the most surreal moment of my life.”
McGashen quotes John C. Mittermeier, director of the lost birds program at American Bird Conservancy and a co-leader of the eight-member expedition: “To find something that’s been gone for that long, that you’re thinking is almost extinct, and then to figure out that it’s not extinct, it feels like finding a unicorn or a Bigfoot. It’s extraordinarily unusual.”
Three Days Ago; 50 Years Ago. Marveling at hummingbird evolution, Katherine Rundell noted here at SimanaitisSays, “They seem as if they were made in an instant, a spark of genius from an extravagant god.”
And so it is with the extravagant diversity of life.
Back when I was teaching mathematics at the College of the Virgin Islands, a biology prof and I were comparing prospects about academic research. Coming up with a new theorem, I said, was deucedly hard. He said “I could walk halfway across my back yard and discover three new species of some kind.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022