[Paleopsych] NYT: 3 Biologists Question Evidence in Sighting of Rare Woodpecker

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3 Biologists Question Evidence in Sighting of Rare Woodpecker


    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
    southeast Arkansas.

    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 [4]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
    trailing edge.

    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
    pileated woodpecker.

    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
    the video.


    4. http://www.ivorybill.org/video.html

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