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Sightings and Specimens: Campephilus principalis

by AMNH on

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Catalog no. AMNH 2482. Photo: © AMNH/R. Mickens

Six years ago this spring, an announcement sent waves of excitement among birders and wildlife enthusiasts: an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, Campephilus principalis, generally thought to be extinct, had been sighted in an Arkansas swamp by a team of investigators. A blurry video of the large bird in flight seemed to provide supporting evidence.

Still, proof of the bird’s existence was not airtight. Subsequent visits, as well as audio and video recordings in the area, yielded no definitive results. The video showed an image that might have been that of a similar species, the Pileated Woodpecker. Both species have black and white wings, but with different patterns that are visible when the wings are extended in flight. While researchers fanned out to look for evidence in Arkansas, at the Museum, ornithologists turned to the collections to examine the wings.

The Museum’s Department of Ornithology’s vast collection includes several specimens of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, most of which were collected more than a century ago. But, like specimens in other institutions around the world, virtually all of the collected samples showed the wings closed or only slightly open. Three Museum scientists painstakingly worked with a 117-year-old Ivory-billed specimen to carefully remove a wing, extend it, and display it for comparison with wings from Pileated samples. Given the quality of the video, their work did not settle the debate over the Arkansas sighting, but it added an important data point—and produced a detailed roadmap for preparing very old specimens for examination.

Collections are often tapped for clues of a different sort, too. “Extinct bird specimens yield DNA samples that can be used to study relationships among species and answer questions about evolution and biogeography,” says Paul Sweet, who oversees the ornithology collection.

Meanwhile, back in Arkansas, the search continues.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring issue of Rotunda, the magazine for Museum Members.