[Paleopsych] NYT: 3 Biologists Question Evidence in Sighting of Rare Woodpecker
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Thu Jul 21 20:58:21 UTC 2005
3 Biologists Question Evidence in Sighting of Rare Woodpecker
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Three biologists are questioning the evidence used by a team of bird
experts who made the electrifying claim in April that they had sighted
an ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird presumed to have vanished from the
United States more than 60 years ago, in the swampy forests of
If the challenge holds up, it would undermine not only a scientific
triumph - the rediscovery of a resplendent bird that had been
exhaustively sought for years - but also significant new conservation
expenditures in the region.
The paper questioning the discovery has been submitted to a
peer-reviewed journal, which could post the analysis online within a
few weeks. But the paper will be accompanied by a fierce rebuttal by
the team that announced the discovery, and a response to that rebuttal
by the challengers.
The expected publication of the paper and the rebuttal was confirmed
in interviews and e-mail exchanges with two authors of the challenge,
Richard O. Prum and Mark B. Robbins, ornithologists at Yale and the
University of Kansas, as well as with two members of the team that
reported finding the woodpecker.
The third author of the new paper is Jerome A. Jackson, a zoologist at
Florida Gulf Coast University and the author of the book, "In Search
of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker," published in 2004.
"In my opinion," Mr. Jackson wrote in an e-mail message on Wednesday,
"the data presented thus far do no more than suggest the possibility
of the presence of an ivory-billed woodpecker. I am most certainly not
saying that ivory-billed woodpeckers are not out there. I truly hope
that the birds do exist in Arkansas or elsewhere and have been
championing this idea for a long time."
Both groups of scientists declined to name the journal or to discuss
the details of the challenge and the response until they were
But they made it clear that the debate revolves around four seconds
of fuzzy videotape that, by chance, captured a bird with sweeping
white-and-black wings as it darted from its perch on the far side of a
tupelo tree in April 2004 and flicked over swampy waters before
vanishing in the trees 11 wing beats later.
That video clip was just one piece in a pile of drawings, recordings
and other evidence collected in more than a year of searching and
deploying cameras and listening devices across the vast swampy reaches
of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge.
Altogether, the original research team, led by scientists from Cornell
University and the Nature Conservancy, compiled seven sightings,
including the video, as well as recordings of a "double knock" sound
typical of the ivory-billed bird.
But only the video was potentially solid enough to confirm for the
wider ornithological community the existence of the bird, the authors
said in various statements at the time.
Everyone agrees that the bird that appears on the tape is either an
ivory-billed woodpecker or a pileated woodpecker, a slightly smaller
bird that is relatively common. Both species have a mix of white and
black plumage. However, the ivory-billed woodpecker has a white
trailing edge to its wings while the pileated woodpecker has a black
The team that conducted the original search for the bird ran extensive
tests, including recreating the scene captured in video using
flapping, hand-held models of the two types of woodpecker. They
concluded that the plumage patterns seen in the grainy image could
only be that of the ivory-billed woodpecker.
The authors of the new paper disagree.
Only extended scientific discussion - or new pictures of the bird from
additional searches - will determine whose view will prevail. Another
intensive scientific search of the region is scheduled to begin in
November, Cornell officials said.
"The people who originally announced this thoroughly believe they got
an ivory-billed woodpecker," Dr. Robbins said in an interview.
Determining if a species has crossed the threshold of extinction often
requires decades of observation to ensure that no stray individuals
have found a reclusive hideaway.
Supposedly extinct species have been rediscovered with some frequency
over the last century. One famed example is the coelacanth, a fish
known only from fossils for generations but then caught by African
In the case of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a magnificent bird with a
30-inch wingspan and a red crest, determining that it has not become
extinct has proved equally daunting. Individual birds were widely
dispersed, and the woodpecker shared habits and habitat with the
Van Remsen of Louisiana State University, an expert on the woodpecker
and a member of the team that reported finding the ivory-billed
species, said he remained confident of the discovery.
"We can counter everything," he said. "We stick to our guns."
The announcement of the bird's apparent discovery came on April 28,
when the scientists' findings were published in the online version of
the journal Science.
The announcement thrilled conservationists, who saw the bird as the
perfect symbol around which to build an invigorated protection plan
for woodland habitat in the Southeast, which harbors a rich array of
wildlife and plants.
The Bush administration used the reported sightings in Arkansas to
promote its "cooperative conservation" philosophy. The day the
rediscovery was publicized, the administration announced a variety of
initiatives, including a plan to pay more than $13 million to
landowners within the region's floodplains who plant and maintain
John W. Fitzpatrick, the co-leader of the search for the bird and
director of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, said it
was normal for scientists to disagree about evidence of this sort,
especially because in this case the video in question was "pretty
But he said that extensive analysis was done and redone to eliminate
the possibility that the bird was a pileated woodpecker.
Dr. Fitzpatrick added that there was "significant additional evidence
right now" that would be published in coming months.
He declined to comment on the challengers' assertions, saying any
discussion could jeopardize publication of the exchange of papers on
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