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Carlos Vasquez Almazan
Carlos Vasquez Almazan

5 Rediscovered Species That Made Headlines In 2017

Carlos Vasquez Almazan
Carlos Vasquez Almazan

We all thought they might be goners. Some of 2017’s best feel-good stories involved the sudden, dramatic reappearances of ultra-rare animals. One long-lost salamander crawled past a park ranger. In Australia, a little marsupial made a huge splash. And a husband/wife team identified a moth species which hadn’t been seen since the Gilded Age. Here are five thought-to-be-extinct species that were rediscovered in 2017.

1. ORIENTAL BLUE CLEARWING

Photo of the Oriental Blue Clearwing
Marta Skowron Volponi

Sometimes, the best defense is a great disguise. The oriental blue clearwing is a Malaysian moth that resembles a few of the bees and wasps in its native area. To pass itself off as a stinging insect, the creature’s evolved a bee-like color pattern. It also makes an ominous buzzing noise while flying. The species first came to scientific light in 1887, when a dead specimen was collected and shipped off to the Natural History Museum in Vienna. For 130 years, no other specimens—living or deceased—were reported. As such, scientists had no way of knowing if the oriental blue clearwing had succumbed to extinction. But now, the mystery has been put to rest.    

Marta Skowron Viloponi is a Polish entomologist (“insect expert”) at the University of Gdansk. Between 2013 and 2017, she and her husband, Paolo, photographed a handful of live oriental blue clearwings in southern Malaysia. After a DNA test confirmed that they had, indeed, rediscovered this long-lost species, the Viloponis announced their big find to the world in a paper published on November 24, 2017.

2. VANZOLINI'S BALD-FACED SAKI

A rare, New World monkey, the Vanzolini's bald-faced saki monkey is exceptionally good at playing hide and seek. Scientists first identified the dark-haired species in 1936, then it fell off our collective radar. While some dead specimens turned up in 1956, no confirmed sightings of a live monkey were made until this past February.

Ten months ago, a team set out to find proof of the Vanzolini's bald-faced saki's continued existence. Included in the quest were seven primatologists, multiple guides, some photographers, and even a couple of drone operators. Using a two-story houseboat as their mobile base of operations, the crew traveled through the Amazon basin. Their efforts were rewarded with multiple saki encounters along the Juruá, Tarauacá, and Liberdade Rivers. Unfortunately, the team was also reminded of the manmade challenges facing this species: There’s an abundance of logging sites within the animal’s current range and some local communities harvest monkey meat on a regular basis. As primatologist Laura Marsh, who headed the expedition, put it, “if no further controls on hunting and forest clearing are put into place… the saki’s conservation status may become critical.”

3. CREST-TAILED MULGARA

An illustration of the Crest-tailed Mulgara
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Like many Australian critters, crest-tailed mulgaras have suffered at the hands of invasive animals. The tiny, rodent-like marsupials are now at the mercy of cats, foxes, and other introduced species. Fossil evidence tells us that the mulgaras used to be a common sight Down Under, but those foreign mammals really drove their numbers down. Although a living population is at large in the state of South Australia, it was assumed that the creature must’ve long-since died out in neighboring New South Wales.

Happily, this isn’t the case. On December 15, the University of New South Wales, Sydney sent out a press release confirming that—for the first time in recorded history—a crest-tailed mulgara had been found within state lines. Specifically, a lone female was caught in Sturt National Park by a research team affiliated with the school. After taking some measurements, the scientists set her free.

4. JACKSON’S CLIMBING SALAMANDER

Jackson's climbing salamander
Carlos Vasquez Almazan

During a 1975 expedition into the forests of Guatemala, herpetologists Paul Elias and Jeremy Jackson discovered three then-unknown salamander species. One of these, the Jackson’s climbing salamander, was a vibrant yellow creature whose appearance earned it the nickname “golden wonder.” Yet, eye-catching as it is, the animal has proven quite elusive. In fact, after Jackson and Elias identified the critter in ’75, nobody would see one again for another 42 years. The situation looked especially hopeless in 2014, when Jackson and Elias themselves went on a follow-up trip through the same area. Though they carefully retraced the steps they’d taken decades earlier, not a single “golden wonder” was spotted this time.

Then along came a park ranger on a lunch break. In 2015, an international group known as Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) helped establish the Finca San Isidro Amphibian Reserve in western Guatemala. Earlier this year, one of the rangers there—27-year old Ramos León-Tomás—was taking a break when he noticed an attractive yellow salamander. He photographed it and sent the pictures off to herpetologist Carlos Vasquez for identification. Sure enough, it was a Jackson’s climbing salamander. According to CBS Miami, León-Tomás “hopes the historic find will bring added recognition and pay for the guards at the reserve.”

5. TÁCHIRA ANTPITTA

Táchira Antpitta
Jhonathan Miranda

For the record, that’s pronounced “TAH-chee-rah ant-pit-ah.” It’s a little brown songbird named after a state in Venezuela. In 1955 and 1956, ornithologists discovered this species near the country’s Colombian border, and that’s the last anyone saw of it for a long while. Because no other sightings or encounters were announced over the following six decades, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) labeled the Táchira antpitta “critically endangered.”

This year, though, we learned about a 2016 expedition that verified that the species hasn’t perished. The trip in question was orchestrated by an international conservation partnership called the Red Siskin Initiative. Led by biologist Jhonathan Miranda, the team set out to find living specimens of near-extinct birds in western Venezuela. On the first full day of their trip, the team hit the jackpot when they became the first people to identify a Táchira antpitta’s distinctive cry since 1956. Later on, the explorers managed to photograph one of the birds. Altogether, they spotted two individuals and heard a total of four.

BONUS: THE NEW GUINEA HIGHLAND WILD DOG

A lot of controversy surrounds this animal. Scientists can’t reach a consensus on how the New Guinea highland wild dog should be classified. Some say it’s a valid canine species, others regard it as merely a dingo subspecies, and still others write off the creature as a primitive domestic dog breed.

In any event, the pooch is world famous for its weird, high-pitched howl. The first western scientist to learn of its existence was English zoologist Charles Walter Di Vis, who came across one on Mount Scratchley in Papua New Guinea back in 1897. A handful of these dogs were exported in the 1950s and today, captive-bred specimens can be found in zoos from Neumünster, Germany to Kansas City, Missouri.

But what happened to their wild counterparts? One free-roaming individual was photographed on New Guinea’s Star Mountains in 1989. However, no other verified encounters with these dogs in their natural habitat were made until September 2016, when researchers used camera traps to snag 140 photographs of a wild group of at least 15 canines. The participating adventurers also documented paw prints and gathered fecal material. News of their findings was broken in a March 24, 2017 press release from the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation, a nonprofit activist group.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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Animals
15 Incredible Facts About Pigeons
iStock
iStock

Though they're often described as "rats with wings" (a phrase popularized by the movie Stardust Memories), pigeons are actually pretty cool. From homing instincts to misleading rump feathers, here are 15 things you might not know about these avian adventurers.

1. THEY MIGHT BE THE FIRST DOMESTICATED BIRD.

The common city pigeon (Columba livia), also known as the rock pigeon, might be the first bird humankind ever domesticated. You can see them in art dating back as far as 4500 BCE in modern Iraq, and they've been a valuable source of food for thousands of years.

2. THEY WON OVER CHARLES DARWIN—AND NIKOLA TESLA.

Pigeon-breeding was a common hobby in Victorian England for everyone from well-off businessmen to average Joes, leading to some fantastically weird birds. Few hobbyists had more enthusiasm for the breeding process than Charles Darwin, who owned a diverse flock, joined London pigeon clubs, and hobnobbed with famous breeders. Darwin's passion for the birds influenced his 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, which has not one but two chapters about pigeons (dogs and cats share a single chapter).

Nikola Tesla was another great mind who enjoyed pigeons. He used to care for injured wild pigeons in his New York City hotel room. Hands down, Tesla's favorite was a white female—about whom he once said, "I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman and she loved me. When she was ill, I knew and understood; she came to my room and I stayed beside her for days. I nursed her back to health. That pigeon was the joy of my life. If she needed me, nothing else mattered. As long as I had her, there was a purpose in my life." Reportedly, he was inconsolable after she died.

3. THEY UNDERSTAND SPACE AND TIME.

In a 2017 Current Biology study, researchers showed captive pigeons a series of digital lines on a computer screen for either two or eight seconds. Some lines were short, measuring about 2.3 inches across; others were four times longer. The pigeons were trained to evaluate either the length of the line or how long it was displayed. They found that the more time a line was displayed, the longer in length the pigeon judged it to be. The reverse was true too: If the pigeons encountered a longer line, they thought it existed in time for a greater duration. Pigeons, the scientists concluded, understand the concepts of both time and space; the researchers noted "similar results have been found with humans and other primates."

It's thought that humans process those concepts with a brain region called the parietal cortex; pigeon brains lack that cortex, so they must have a different way of judging space and time.

4. THEY CAN FIND THEIR WAY BACK TO THE NEST FROM 1300 MILES AWAY.

A pigeon flying in front of trees.
iStock

The birds can do this even if they've been transported in isolation—with no visual, olfactory, or magnetic clues—while scientists rotate their cages so they don't know what direction they're traveling in. How they do this is a mystery, but people have been exploiting the pigeon's navigational skills since at least 3000 BCE, when ancient peoples would set caged pigeons free and follow them to nearby land.

Their navigational skills also make pigeons great long-distance messengers. Sports fans in ancient Greece are said to have used trained pigeons to carry the results of the Ancient Olympics. Further east, Genghis Khan stayed in touch with his allies and enemies alike through a pigeon-based postal network.

5. THEY SAVED THOUSANDS OF HUMAN LIVES DURING WORLD WARS I AND II.

Pigeons' homing talents continued to shape history during the 20th century. In both World Wars, rival nations had huge flocks of pigeon messengers. (America alone had 200,000 at its disposal in WWII.) By delivering critical updates, the avians saved thousands of human lives. One racing bird named Cher Ami completed a mission that led to the rescue of 194 stranded U.S. soldiers on October 4, 1918.

6. TWO PIGEONS ALMOST DISTRACTED FROM THE DISCOVERY OF EVIDENCE OF THE BIG BANG.

In 1964, scientists in Holmdel, New Jersey, heard hissing noises from their antenna that would later prove to be signals from the Big Bang. But when they first heard the sound, they thought it might be, among other things, the poop of two pigeons that were living in the antenna. "We took the pigeons, put them in a box, and mailed them as far away as we could in the company mail to a guy who fancied pigeons," one of the scientists later recalled. "He looked at them and said these are junk pigeons and let them go and before long they were right back." But the scientists were able to clean out the antenna and determine that they had not been the cause of the noise. The trap used to catch the birds (before they had to later be, uh, permanently removed) is on view at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

7. YOU CAN TRAIN THEM TO BE ART SNOBS …

Japanese psychologist Shigeru Watanabe and two colleagues earned an Ig Nobel Prize in 1995 for training pigeons, in a lab setting, to recognize the paintings of Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso and to distinguish between the painters. The pigeons were even able to use their knowledge of impressionism and cubism to identify paintings of other artists in those movements. Later, Watanabe taught other pigeons to distinguish watercolor images from pastels. And in a 2009 experiment, captive pigeons he'd borrowed were shown almost two dozen paintings made by students at a Tokyo elementary school, and were taught which ones were considered "good" and which ones were considered "bad." He then presented them with 10 new paintings and the avian critics managed to correctly guess which ones had earned bad grades from the school's teacher and a panel of adults. Watanabe's findings indicate that wild pigeons naturally categorize things on the basis of color, texture, and general appearance.

8. … AND TO DISTINGUISH WRITTEN WORDS.

In a 2016 study, scientists showed that pigeons can differentiate between strings of letters and actual words. Four of the birds built up a vocabulary of between 26 and 58 written English words, and though the birds couldn't actually read them, they could identify visual patterns and therefore tell them apart. The birds could even identify words they hadn't seen before.

9. FLUFFY PIGEON FEET MIGHT ACTUALLY BE PARTIAL WINGS.

A white pigeon with curly feathers and fluffy feet.
iStock

A few pigeon breeds have fuzzy legs—which hobbyists call "muffs"—rather than scaly ones. According to a 2016 study, the DNA of these fluffy-footed pigeons leads their hind legs to take on some forelimb characteristics, making muffed pigeon legs look distinctly wing-like; they're also big-boned. Not only do they have feathers, but the hindlimbs are somewhat big-boned, too. According to biologist Mike Shapiro, who led the study, "pigeons' fancy feathered feet are partially wings."

10. SOME PIGEONS DISTRACT FALCONS WITH WHITE RUMP FEATHERS.

In a life-or-death situation, a pigeon's survival could depend upon its color pattern: Research has shown that wild falcons rarely go after pigeons that have a white patch of feathers just above the tail, and when the predators do target these birds, the attacks are rarely successful.

To figure out why this is, Ph.D. student Alberto Palleroni and a team tagged 5235 pigeons in the vicinity of Davis, California. Then, they monitored 1485 falcon-on-pigeon attacks over a seven-year span. The researchers found that although white-rumped pigeons comprised 20 to 25 percent of the area's pigeon population, they represented less than 2 percent of all the observed pigeons that were killed by falcons; the vast majority of the victims had blue rumps. Palleroni and his team rounded up 756 white- and blue-rumped pigeons and swapped their rump feathers by clipping and pasting white feathers on blue rumps, and vice versa. The falcons had a much easier time spotting and catching the newly blue-rumped pigeons, while the pigeons that received the white feathers saw predation rates plummet.

Close observation revealed that the white patches distract birds of prey. In the wild, falcons dive-bomb other winged animals from above at high speeds. Some pigeons respond by rolling away in midair, and on a spiraling bird, white rump feathers can be eye-catching, which means that a patch of them may divert a hungry raptor's focus long enough to make the carnivore miscalculate and zip right past its intended victim.

11. DODOS WERE RELATED TO TODAY'S PIGEONS.

Two blue and green Nicobar pigeons.
iStock

Though most of this list focuses on the rock pigeon, there are 308 living species of pigeons and doves. Together, they make up an order of birds known as the columbiformes. The extinct dodo belonged to this group as well.

Flightless and (somewhat) docile, dodos once inhabited Mauritius, an island near Madagascar. The species had no natural predators, but when human sailors arrived with rats, dogs, cats, and pigs, it began to die out, and before the 17th century came to a close, the dodo had vanished altogether. DNA testing has confirmed that pigeons are closely related to the dodo, and the vibrant Nicobar pigeon (above) is its nearest genetic relative. A multi-colored bird with iridescent feathers, this near-threatened creature is found on small islands in the South Pacific and off Asia. Unlike the dodo, it can fly.

12. AT ONE POINT, MORE THAN ONE-QUARTER OF ALL THE BIRDS LIVING IN THE U.S. MAY HAVE BEEN PASSENGER PIGEONS.

Wild/feral rock pigeons reside in all 50 states, which makes it easy to forget that they're invasive birds. Originally native to Eurasia and northern Africa, the species was (most likely) introduced to North America by French settlers in 1606. At the time, a different kind of columbiform—this one indigenous—was already thriving there: the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). As many as 5 billion of them were living in America when England, Spain, and France first started colonizing, and they may have once represented anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the total U.S. bird population. But by the early 20th century, they had become a rare sight, thanks to overhunting, habitat loss, and a possible genetic diversity issue. The last known passenger pigeon—a captive female named Martha—died on September 1, 1914.

13. THEY'RE REALLY GOOD AT MULTITASKING.

According to one study, they're more efficient multitaskers than people are. Scientists at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum put together a test group of 15 humans and 12 pigeons and trained all of them to complete two simple jobs (like pressing a keyboard once a light bulb came on). They were also put in situations wherein they'd need to stop working on one job and switch over to another. In some trials, the participants had to make the change immediately. During these test runs, humans and pigeons switched between jobs at the same speed.

But in other trials, the test subjects were allowed to complete one assignment and then had to wait 300 milliseconds before moving on to the next job. Interestingly, in these runs, the pigeons were quicker to get started on that second task after the period ended. In the avian brain, nerve cells are more densely packed, which might enable our feathered friends to process information faster than we can under the right circumstances.

14. PIGEONS PRODUCE FAKE "MILK."

Only mammals produce genuine milk, but pigeons and doves (along with some other species of birds) feed their young with something similar—a whitish liquid filled with nutrients, fats, antioxidants, and healthy proteins called "crop milk." Both male and female pigeons create the milk in the crop, a section of the esophagus designed to store food temporarily. As is the case with mammal milk, the creation of crop milk is regulated by the hormone prolactin. Newly-hatched pigeons drink crop milk until they're weaned off it after four weeks or so. (And if you've ever asked yourself, "Where are all the baby pigeons?" we have the answer for you right here.)

15. ONE STUDY SUGGESTS THAT, GIVEN THE RIGHT CONDITIONS, THEY'RE AS GOOD AT IDENTIFYING CANCER AS DOCTORS.

We've already established that pigeons are excellent at differentiating between artists and words, but a 2015 study revealed they can also distinguish between malignant and benign growths in the right conditions. Researchers at University of California Davis Medical Center put 16 pigeons in a room with magnified biopsies of potential breast cancers. If the pigeons correctly identified them as either benign or malignant, they got a treat, According to Scientific American.

"Once trained, the pigeons' average diagnostic accuracy reached an impressive 85 percent. But when a "flock sourcing" approach was taken, in which the most common answer among all subjects was used, group accuracy climbed to a staggering 99 percent, or what would be expected from a pathologist. The pigeons were also able to apply their knowledge to novel images, showing the findings weren't simply a result of rote memorization."

Mammograms proved to be more of a challenge, however; the birds could memorize signs of cancer in the images they were trained on but could not identify the signs in new images.

No matter how impressive their results, "I don't anticipate that pigeons, no matter how good they become at pathology or radiology, will be playing a role in actual patient care—certainly for the foreseeable future," study co-author Richard M. Levenson told Scientific American. "There are just too many regulatory barriers—at least in the West."

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