Elusive songbird, the Liberian greenbul, may have never existed

Scientists were only able to collect a single example of the Liberian Greenbul in the 1980s. Photo by University of Aberdeen

Oct. 6 (UPI) — Ornithologists may have spent three decades looking for a bird that never was.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Ornithology, the elusiveness of the Liberian greenbul, the rarest of songbirds, can be explained by its lack of existence.

Scientists didn’t invent the Liberian greenbul, Phyllastrephus leucolepis, out of thin air. In the early 1980s, researchers spotted what they believed to be a new species, but were only able to collect a single specimen, similar to the Icterine greenbul but with distinctive white markings on its feathers.

The ornithologists decided they had discovered a new species. For the last 30 years or so, the specimen has remained the sole evidence of Liberian greenbul’s existence. Liberia’s civil war made followup expeditions difficult, but surveys in 2010 and 2013 turned up no signs of the species.

Now, scientists have an explanation for the bird’s elusiveness. It never existed.

New DNA analysis by experts at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland, suggests the specimen’s genome isn’t significantly different than that of the Icterine greenbul. Researchers hypothesized that the sole specimen is likely just an Icterine greenbul with an odd plumage variation, possibly caused by a nutritional deficiency.

Previous surveys have measured significantly genetic differences among other species of greenbul, offering further proof that the Liberian greenbul and Icterine greenbul are indeed the same.

“The Liberian Greenbul has gained almost ‘mythical’ status since it was sighted in the ’80s,” Martin Collinson, a geneticist from the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Medical Sciences, said in a news release. “We can’t say definitively that the Liberian Greenbul is the same bird as the Iceterine Greenbul but we have presented enough evidence that makes any other explanation seem highly unlikely. The genetic work was performed independently by scientists here in Aberdeen and in Dresden to make sure there could be no error — we both came to the same conclusion.”

West Africa’s Cavalla Forest, where the single Liberian greenbul specimen was collected, is treasured as a haven of biodiversity. It is of ecological significant to a variety of threatened bird species.


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