Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Lazarus Effect

by kellyc, This post originally appeared at Future Science Leaders.

In the early 16th century, Spanish seafarers stumbled upon an archipelago of islands known today as Bermuda. They did not initially settle the islands, partly due to superstition — they heard eerie screams which they likened to the cries of ghosts, and concluded the islands were inhabited by devils. We know that that the source of these calls was a bird called the Bermuda petrel.
The Bermuda petrel was locally very common, but when settlers introduced rats, cats and dogs, their population suffered greatly. By 1620, they were thought to have gone extinct. For the next 300 years, they settled into oblivion, all but forgotten, and were presumed extinct.
In 1950, an American ornithologist (bird scientist) Robert Murphy, a Bermudian naturalist, Louis Mowbray, and a 15 year old Bermudian boy, David Wingate, set out to study some rocky islands in Northern Bermuda. Incredibly, they discovered 18 breeding pairs of the Bermuda petrel, a bird thought to be extinct for over 330 years. Today, their population has increased to over 250 individuals, protected habitat areas have been created, and conservation/breeding efforts are ongoing. However remarkable the story of the Bermuda petrel may sound, it is not unique — Numerous species have “risen from extinction”, and have been rediscovered. Named after the biblical story of Jesus resurrecting Lazarus from the dead, these species are called Lazarus species. They are animals that have vanished and have been deemed extinct, sometimes for only a few years and sometimes for millions, yet have been rediscovered in modern times.
The Lazarus effect, coined by primatologist Jane Goodall, is the feeling of hope that the rediscovery of these species, miraculously risen from “extinction”, can send us. This effect can often spur us into action – with the case of the Bermuda petrel, the 15 year old boy, David Wingate, who helped rediscover the species eventually became Bermuda’s first conservation officer and was the first to start conservation efforts to protect the petrels. He created a program to help build nesting tunnels for the Bermuda petrel to keep out competing birds and restored a nearby island so that it could become a future habitat for these petrels.
Another example is that of the Cebu Flowerpecker – a small bird, endemic to an island in the Philippines that had been presumed extinct for over a hundred years, was rediscovered in 1992. This rediscovery came at an especially important time– just before the last stretch of its forest habitat was to be cut down! Since its rediscovery, habitat rehabilitation and conservation efforts have been established to protect this bird. In 2009, encouraged by the rediscovery of the Cebu Flowerpecker, the British Birdwatching Fair started a global quest to find and photograph 47 bird species that are presumed extinct. In doing so, they hope to find more Lazarus species, and save them from brink of extinction. Life, when given the chance, can sometimes survive, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

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About this contributor: Kelly is an ocean lover and high school student, and is particularly fascinated by whales. She enjoys being outdoors, writing, traveling and meeting new people.

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