Killing of Rare Moustached Bird in the Name of Science Ignites Controversy

Posted on October 13, 2015

The elusive Moustached Kingfisher was recently photographed in the wild for the first time. The bird has not been seen in the wild for decades. The rare bird was also killed when the scientist collected the specimen for additional study.

A story about the beautiful bird being photographed for the first time in history was published here in the Audubon. They describe the bird as being a rare "ghost bird." The discovery was led by American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) biologist Chris Filardi. The bird was found in the jungles of Guadalcanal, which is part of the Solomon Islands.

Filardi also wrote about his expedition to find the bird in the AMNH blog. They first recognized the bird by its voice. Filardi says, "Until on our third morning we heard an unmistakable “ko-ko-ko-kokokokokokokoko-kiew” of a bird that could only be a large forest kingfisher. We paused, waited for what seemed like eternity, and then heard another cry from the mossy forest. It had to be the bird."

It was several more days before they eventually caught a male kingfisher using fine mist nets. Filardi writes, "One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life."

The Washington Post reports that the controversy over Filardi's decision to "collect" the specimen has resulted in Audubon updating its article with an editor's note.

The note says, "This story has been updated to clarify that the bird was euthanized and the specimen collected. Paul Sweet, collection manager for the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History and one of the researchers on the team, told Audubon that they assessed the state of the population and the state of the habitat, and concluded it was substantial and healthy enough that taking the specimen—the only male ever observed by science—would not affect the population's success.

Filardi also wrote an article explaining the reasoning behind his decision to collect a specimen. He says it is the scientific gold standard. He also says there is a population estimate of over 4,000 kingfisher individuals.

The UCN Red List of Threatened Species listing for the Guadalcanal Moustached Kingfisher (Actenoides excelsus) says, "This spectacular species is judged to be Endangered on the basis of a very small estimated population which is suspected to be declining, at least in part of its range. However, further research may reveal it to be more common."

Earlier this month researchers relied on photographs alone to document a new species of bee fly. The authors of the study are not denouncing dead insect specimen collection and dissection. However, they did say, "It is unrealistic to think that distinct and diagnosable new taxa known only from good photographs and appropriate associated metadata should be organized and referred to only as 'undescribed species' when they can and should be organized and named using the existing rules of nomenclature."

Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, says in a Huffington Post article, "Killing 'in the name of conservation' or 'in the name of education' or 'in the name of whatever' simply needs to stop. It is wrong and sets a horrific precedent for future research and for children. Imagine what a youngster would think if he or she heard something like, 'I met a rare and gorgeous bird today ... and I killed him.' Even if this handsome male were a member of a common species, there was no reason to kill him."

We think there needs to be a movement away from species collection - particularly in rare birds, mammals and reptiles - as the gold standard. New field methods and in-the-field mobile technology need to be developed and used so scientists can collect as much data as possible without having to collect (kill) these rare animals and bring them back to the lab for additional study. Population numbers for most of Earth's rare animals are rapidly declining; therefore, it seems only logical to move away from "collection" as a common scientific practice.

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