Renowned for the role they played in inspiring Charles Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle, the Galápagos Islands scattered across the Pacific Ocean are fabled for the spectacular wildlife they are home to. Now researchers have just added another beautiful bird to that list, the San Cristóbal Island Vermilion Flycatcher, only with one catch: it’s already extinct.
The bird, thought to have bitten the dust in around 1987, is now considered to be the first modern-day extinction of a bird species on the Galápagos Islands; not a particularly coveted title, it has to be said. The existence of the unfortunate little bird was only revealed as researchers studied historical collections of specimens kept at the California Academy of Sciences, and after analyzing what was originally thought to be various subspecies of Vermilion Flycatchers, discovered that those living on San Cristóbal were genetically distinct enough to warrant their own species.
While what were thought to be two subspecies living across the Galápagos were instead found to be two species, Pyrocephalus nanus and Pyrocephalus dubius, the latter was last spotted in 1987. “A species of bird that may be extinct in the Galápagos is a big deal,” says Jack Dumbacher, co-author of the latest study describing both the discovery and extinction of the species in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. “This marks an important landmark for conservation in the Galápagos, and a call to arms to understand why these birds have declined.”
The closely-related Galápagos Vermilion Flycatcher still clings on. Alvaro Jaramillo
While it is as yet unknown what exactly led to the downfall of the birds, it is suspected that the main culprits likely to be behind the extinction of the ill-fated flycatcher are two invasive species also implicated in the decline of other native wildlife. The rats that were introduced to the islands in the ships of the first visitors often climb into nests and feast on the birds’ eggs, while the larvae of a parasitic fly feed on developing nestlings, often killing them in the process.
Yet some think that the elevation of the bird to a species level might conversely help bring it back. “Wouldn't it be great if the San Cristóbal Vermilion Flycatcher weren't extinct? No one is looking, I'm pretty sure of that,” said Alvaro Jaramillo, another co-author of the study. “At the very least, this discovery should motivate people to survey and see if there are any remaining individuals of the species hanging on that we don't know about.”
Perhaps then, despite there being no evidence over the last two decades of the little bird, people simply haven’t been looking hard enough. But even if the San Cristóbal Vermilion Flycatcher’s luck has indeed run out, important lessons can be learned from this that hopefully can prevent further extinctions.