Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Back From the Dead

The Tasman Booby was long thought to be extinct. Polynesian settlers wiped out much of its population in the 13th century, and what was known to remain of its population was hunted to extinction by European sailors in the 18th century. Both sets of hunters considered the booby a valuable food source. As it turns out, this species was not actually extinct. However, they did not survive as a small remnant population but as a subspecies of the Masked Booby.

Researchers had long suspected that the "extinct" Tasman booby and the living masked booby of the North Tasman Sea were closely related. The birds have similar male and female body shapes and characteristically long wings, for starters.

But it was only when a group of naturalists, paleontologists, and geneticists pooled their expertise that these suspicions could be put to the test, said Tammy Steeves of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, who led the new study.

The researchers compared fossilized and modern bones and DNA from specimens identified as Tasman and masked boobies.

Physically, the fossil bones looked strikingly similar to their modern counterparts. More important, the DNA was a perfect match, Steeves said.
According to the article, the two were initially classified as separate species because palaeontologists compared bones of female Tasman Boobies with male Masked Boobies. The significant size difference between the sexes made the two populations appear to be separate species.