DNA analysis of rare Philippine fruit pigeon sheds new light on 70-year-old mystery

External, lateral and dorsal views of a single specimen of the Negros fruit pigeon collected in the Philippines in 1953.
External, lateral and dorsal views of a single specimen of the Negros fruit pigeon collected in the Philippines in 1953.
Mount Kanlaon, where the ornithologist Dioscoro S. Rabor found a single specimen in 1953 during a trip to the forest area.
  • The Negros fruit pigeon is scientifically known from a single female specimen collected in the Philippines in 1953; nothing is known about its habits, song, or even what a male of this species looks like.
  • Recent genetic analysis supports the classification of the pigeon as a distinct species within the genus Ptilinopus.
  • It also identifies areas where the bird may still live, based on statistical analysis of its historical range.
  • Whether Negros fruit pigeons are still alive remains a mystery, but researchers say continued research combined with modern technology such as loggers and environmental DNA testing may help find out. wild species in the wild.

The Negros fruit pigeon was described from a single specimen collected in the Philippines in 1953 and has never been seen by scientists. Now, thanks to advances in DNA sequencing, researchers and conservationists are on the verge of uncovering the secrets of one of the world’s most mysterious birds, including identifying the places where it can live. they may still be hanging on to them.

As an undergraduate at Yale, the Negros fruit pigeon was of particular interest because the unique species resides in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. [in the U.S.], says John Nash, who led a team of biologists at Yale that analyzed pigeon genetics. The results of their research were published in the journal Ibisis Jan. 29.

A Filipino ornithologist, Dioscoro S. Rabor, found this lone specimen in 1953 during a trip to the forest of Mount Kanlaon, on the central Philippine island of Negros. Hed shot two small green birds, but missed one. That left Rabor and his medical advisor, Sidney Dillon Ripley, to base their description of the bird on a single specimen, a female. Determining that it is a new species of fruit pigeon (Ptilinopus), they named it P. arcanusafter the Latin word for secret or hidden.

Over the years, many have tried and failed to find this species. However, save for a few unverified reports from hunters over the past 40 years, the Negros fruit pigeon is still elusive. Others have thought of that too P. arcanus it may not be its own species, but simply a juvenile or an offshoot from an already known species.

We don’t know anything about the ecology of the Negros fruit pigeon, says Lisa Paguntalan, executive director of the Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Incorporated (PhilBio) and Negros wildlife expert. Some people have also said that this is over.External, lateral and dorsal views of one specimen of the Negros fruit pigeon collected in the Philippines in 1953. Image courtesy of JA Nash, et al. (2024).

The secret of evolution

Nash and his co-authors conducted their study to investigate phylogeny and possible habitat P. arcanusa species that, although scientists have not seen it for more than 70 years, is still classified as critically endangered rather than extinct.

Analyzing the genealogy of P. arcanus, the researchers compared the genes taken from the female image with those from more than 20 other species of fruit pigeons. DNA naturally degrades over time, and since they were working with very old samples over 100 years old they expected to be able to work only with small fragments of DNA, Nash says . So, instead of trying conventional methods that require whole-genome sequencing, they focused on highly conserved elements (UCEs), which are parts of genes that remain relatively similar across species. distantly related. Based on these, the researchers assessed the rate of evolutionary change in the birds they studied. They have reached that conclusion P. arcanus it comes from a very different lineage, the first to separate from the most recent ancestor that it shared with other species of fruit pigeons millions of years ago, long before it appeared on the island where it was found. This strongly suggests a broad distribution for P. arcanus at some point in its evolutionary history.

Possible locations of the missing bird

To identify the places where the bird can be found again, the authors used statistical models to reconstruct the area of ​​the ancestors of the fruit pigeons of Negros during the Pleistocene. Based on what is known about how land and sea conditions have changed over the millennia due to climate change, studies show that forest areas are not well explored in Negros and the neighboring island of Panay as the places where the fruits of Negros are. the dove could still be there.

Paguntalan, who was not a co-author of the study, recalls meeting Nash online in 2022 and providing some information about the species, as well as suggesting places to visit. other than Kanlaon Mountain where interested people can research this species. Paguntalan said his team conducted a general survey of birds in the western part of Mt. Kanlaon, as well as limited research in the Northern Negros Natural Park and the montane areas in central Panay. He notes that his team has not encountered the fruit pigeon of Negros in their data collection process, although these studies were not made specifically to look for this species.

Nash was also able to talk to Godfrey Jakosalem, PhilBios operations manager, while working on the study. The results of the construction of my ancestral species have been confirmed [both Paguntalans and Jakosalems] opinion that the fruit pigeon of Negros probably represents a montane species, and we all agreed that scientists looking for this species should give priority to exploring the heights of Mt. Mandalagan Northern Negros Natural Park, Nash says.Mount Kanlaon, where the ornithologist Dioscoro S. Rabor found a single specimen in 1953 during a trip to the forest area. Image by Studphil via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

Finding the lost fruit pigeon

A Yale study provides evidence that the Negros fruit pigeon is a unique species within Ptilinopus genus, but the question remains whether it is extinct.

There is no evidence that it still exists, but there is no evidence that it does not exist, says Desmond Allen, an environmentalist and author of this book. Birds of the Philippineswho calls the Negros fruit pigeon part of the Negros/West Visayan forest ecosystem.

Allen mentions two effective ways to get the Negros fruit pigeon in the area. One would be the use of audio reggings which, if widely distributed throughout the year in the forests of West Visayan, could catch the unknown calls that can be produced by the Negros fruit pigeon; the other is the care of the DNA of the environment, which opens the possibility to find not only the fruit pigeon of Negros, but perhaps also other unknown or undescribed species.

Although the new research adds a few pieces to the game, there are still many gaps to fill in the bigger picture. As Nash puts it, Currently, we don’t know what it eats, what it sounds like, or what male feathers look like!

Both Nash and Paguntalan say the key to taming this lost bird is finding it in the wild. Currently, Paguntalan and his team are conducting research in all the mountains of Negros and Panay, and are collaborating with the Philippine government to expand their research into protected areas in the islands.

As a Negrosanon, it is important to look [for] and get the rest of the species, Paguntalan says. Losing is a permanent kind of loss [like the Negros fruit dove] it is not only a loss to the Negroes and the Philippines, but to the world.

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Nash, JA, Harrington, RC, Zyskowski, K., Near, TJ, & Prum, RO (2024). Species status and phylogenetic relationships of the enigmatic Negros Fruit Dove (Ptilinopus arcanus). Ibis. doi:10.1111/ibi.13305

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Biodiversity, Birds, Conservation, Endangered Species, DNA, Endangered Species, Environment, Research, Science, Tropical Forests, Wildlife, Animal Conservation

Asia, Philippines, Southeast Asia, Philippines


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