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The Elusive Songbird Species That Likely Never Existed

After fruitless hunts for a Liberian songbird, DNA analysis suggests that the species is not new

The only specimen ever collected of the erstwhile species Phyllastrephus leucolepis, or the Liberian Greenbul (University of Aberdeen)
smithsonian.com

Ornithologists have spent years on the hunt for an elusive songbird. Colored olive-green with a vibrant yellow breast, its wings were punctuated by white spots. But after three decades of searching, as Ryan F. Mandelbaum writes for Gizmodo, they realized that the bird they were seeking may have never existed in the first place. 

In the early 1980s, German ornithologist Wulf Gatter traveled to Liberia, Africa, to study its colorful avian life. It was there that a vibrant green-yellow songbird caught his eye. He chased it down and caught a single specimen in January of 1984. At the time he thought it was different than any bird he'd ever seen, declaring it a new species: Phyllastrephus leucolepis, or the Liberian Greenbul.

Though the new species appeared very similar to the previously discovered Icterine Greenbul, Gatter's species had a series of striking white patches on the edges of its feathers, reports Brooks Hays of UPI.

Ornithologists hoped to collect more examples of this new species, but Liberia soon fell into two bloody and protracted civil wars, preventing researchers from visiting the country for decades. The so-called Liberian Greenbul remained an elusive beast—listed on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Red List as "Data Deficient," meaning there was an insufficient amount known about the creature to evaluate the state of the species in the wild.

Liberia's political situation slowly began to stabilize, allowing scientists to return 2010 and 2013 to hunt for the Liberian Greenbul, reports Mandelbaum. But they came up empty handed.

Frustrated, Gatter eventually turned to a tool largely unavailable to him in 1984 to evaluate the species: DNA. Genetic analysis has revolutionized the field of taxonomy. It both erased and sharpened the lines previously been laid down between species.

The results: The Liberian Greenbul is likely just a funny-looking Icterine Greenbul. ​

The study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Ornithology, notes that the analysis was only based on Gatter's single bird he collected, so no ironclad conclusions could be made. But the researchers believe that the DNA evidence strongly suggests Gatter's feathered friend is not a new species.

"We can’t say definitively that the Liberian Greenbul is the same bird as the Icterine Greenbul but we have presented enough evidence that makes any other explanation seem highly unlikely," Martin Collinson, a geneticist at the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Medical Sciences, says in a statement.

Gatter tells Mandelbaum he's disappointed in the results. But after three decades of wondering, he's happy to get a little closure in his hunt for the elusive bird.

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