Monday, March 10, 2008

Animal of the Week -- March 10, 2008

Where the hell has the time gone? March is half way over already. But the rapid passing of a few months is nothing for this week's animal of the week Pseudobulweria becki (Beck's petrel), which has been missing, presumed extinct, for the past 80 years.

Petrels are sea birds related to fulmars and albatrosses, collectively known as the tubenoses due to the structure of their nostrils atop their bills. Some petrels are among the most numerous species of sea birds. But not Beck's petrel -- known from two specimens collected in the 1920s, it had not been reliably spotted since 1929. Repeated unconfirmed sitings kept alive the hopes that a population of this species was clinging on in the western Pacific, but the similarity of Beck's and the closely related Tahiti petrel made many ornithologists sceptical of their survival.

Last week, however, Hadoram Shirihai -- an Israeli ornithologist with a rep for discovering new species and the only person to have visited all sub-Antarctic islands to see all the species of albatross -- reported photographing 30 or so birds feeding alongside Tahiti petrels in the Bismark Archipelago northeast of New Guinea. Smaller in size than their companions, he recognised them as the errant Beck's petrel. The group contained adults and juvenile birds, showing that a breeding population is hanging on somewhere in the region. The discoverer of the species, Rollo Beck, suggested that this species bred in low lying atolls in Melanesia. Secretive birds, most petrels return to breeding grounds at night making them especially difficult to track.

Petrels have a habit of hovering above the surface of the sea, their feet just touching the water as they pick off surface dwelling plankton and small fish. This habit is the origin of their name, which is derived from St Peter who was said to have walked on water, his feelings towards plankton, however, are lost to hagiography.

The exciting news about the rediscovery of the Beck's petrel resurrects hope for other missing species such as the Newcastle Brown Whale, the Guiness Black Stoat, the Famous Grouse and the Kronenbourg sixteen-sixty-doormouse.

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