Outrage over rare bird killed ‘for science’

Rare sight: The moustached kingfisher is called ‘Mbarikuku’ by the locals. © R. Moyle

It took over a century to find the moustached kingfisher. But moments after the first photographs were taken of the elusive bird, it was killed for research. Can the decision be justified?

Dr Christopher Filardi was on a trip to one of the remote Solomon Islands when he finally heard the call of a rare bird he had been seeking for some 20 years.

The male moustached kingfisher had eluded scientists for over a century; no one knew how it would behave, or even what it would look like. So when he and his team eventually captured one, they were stunned. Its deep blue back and bright orange face were simply beautiful — it was like ‘a creature of myth come to life’.

Dr Filardi described the bird as a ‘ghost’: it nests in holes in the ground or enclosed patches of forest, and is often only active at dawn or dusk. This makes it almost impossible to spot. One female was described in the 1920s; two more were captured in the 1950s; but sightings of the male had only ever been passed on by word of mouth.

The photographs taken of the bird were the first of their kind, and jubilantly shared around the world. But the public’s joy soon turned to anger. It emerged that after careful consideration, and with the ‘blessing’ of the local community, the team had ‘euthanised’ the bird for further study. The decision sparked a fierce debate among scientific communities over the practice of ‘collecting’ rare species.

Despite the criticism he faced, Dr Filardi insisted that his decision was sound. He did a thorough survey of the area, listening for birds when he could not see them, and eventually estimated a ‘robust’ number of around 4,000 living on the island. Besides, preserving members of undocumented species is standard practice for a biologist in his position.

But collecting has been controversial for many years. It was a popular pursuit in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and often unregulated. Opponents argue that the practice helped along the extinction of numerous species. If you need proof, they say, just think of the great auk now only to be seen stuffed (’taxidermied’) in museums.

Birds of a feather

Critics argue that it is cruel and unnecessary for scientists to kill rare creatures in the name of research. There is no way of knowing how much damage they are doing to the new species which they know little about. Instead, scientists should simply take feathers, blood samples and photographs before releasing the creatures back into the wild.

But Dr Filardi defended himself: he followed the ‘gold standard’ procedure used in his field. Collecting allows a range of different scientists to learn more about the wildlife we share this planet with; the full specimen could be vital to future researchers in ways we haven’t even imagined yet. And, if a species is wiped out by humans or climate change, there will be a lasting record for future generations.

You Decide

  1. If you were Dr Filardi, would you have made the same decision?
  2. Do humans have the right to interfere with the natural world?

Activities

  1. Using the links under Become An Expert, write a short factfile on the Solomon Islands.
  2. Choose an endangered species which lives in the Pacific, and create a presentation for the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“Emotion has no place in science.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this all very far away?
The Solomon Islands are around 9,231 miles away from Britain, but endangered species are a problem across the planet. Some scientists argue that Earth is undergoing a ‘Sixth Extinction’ period: 75% of species could be wiped out in just a few generations. But unlike the asteroids and climate shifts which caused the first five, humans are largely to blame. We should make sure we’re doing all we can to stop it getting worse.
What will happen to the island next?
Dr Filardi was excited to find that the bird’s habitat was thriving — but the island still faces many threats. Even if its rainforests are protected from industry, they could be affected by climate change. That, scientists say, is why it’s important to learn about these species while we can still help.

Word Watch

Christopher Filardi
Dr Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History has been visiting Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to learn more about its biodiversity; he works with local communities and governments to preserve its remote highlands from the threat of mining, logging, and other industrial development.
Solomon Islands
One of the most remote countries in the world with wildlife rarely studied by biologists. There are hundreds of small islands in the republic, granted independence from Britain in 1978. It is one of the poorest countries in the Pacific.
4,000
As he surveyed the Guadalcanal highlands, he recorded ‘several’ of the bird’s calls in a square kilometre, estimating at least three pairs. Even if only 15% of the island was habitable, he calculated that it could still be home to more than 4,000 birds and that losing one would not make a noticeable difference.
Great auk
The penguin-like birds were once common, but the last known pair was killed by fishermen off Iceland in 1844, and later stuffed. The last reported sighting was of a live individual in 1852.

Subjects

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