Storm petrels are nicknamed “Jesus birds” for their habit of seemingly walking on water. Now, the New Zealand storm petrel shares another trait with the biblical figure: It has risen from the dead. Thought to be extinct for 150 years, new evidence proves that the bird is alive.
Researchers compared DNA from birds caught in New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf to tissue fragments of the "extinct" species housed in British and French museums. The samples from the 150-year-old skins matched blood samples from living birds.
"We found they were one and the same, and these birds are a distinct species of storm-petrel [Oceanites maorianus]," says Bruce Robertson, a University of Otago zoology lecturer who published the findings in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution with co-authors Brent Stephenson of Eco-Vista and Sharyn Goldstien of Canterbury University.
“Since 2003, researchers had largely accepted that the bird was the NZ storm-petrel, but until we had taxonomic certainty, the conservation effort to protect the bird was paralysed,” says Robertson. “There was always going to be this controversy because no one knew exactly what the museum skins were.”
The black-and-white petrel was rediscovered by birdwatchers Ian Saville and Brent Stephenson, near the Mercury Islands in the Hauraki Gulf in 2003.
"It was a complete fluke," Saville told Auckland Now. "We'd seen heaps and heaps of the common storm petrels, the white-faced storm petrels, and then I just saw this little black and white thing. It raced toward the boat, did a quick circle, raced off again and that was it."
Since then, observers have seen the birds in flocks of up to 30 individuals in the gulf from October to April. Yet the birds remain largely a mystery. Their breeding grounds remain unknown, despite failed efforts to follow them to their nests using radio telemetry. And it’s thought that the birds are merely summer-breeding visitors to the Hauraki Gulf, migrating elsewhere for the rest of the year, though no one knows where they go.
“Hopefully now the NZ Storm-Petrel will be given a conservation priority that would be given to a nationally endangered species,” says Robertson. “This will help us to fund further study of the bird, such as where it breeds.”
Finding the breeding grounds would not only help to determine the population size, it would also enable conservationists to protect the site and the elusive birds.
For more on the New Zealand storm petrel, visit birdlife.org.