Saturday, February 6, 2010

New Study Analyzes Only Known Footage of Vanished Imperial Woodpecker

Originally posted  10/26/11 - backdated to organize posts by topic.

There is big news today as the only film ever found of an Imperial Woodpecker is released in the form of 85 seconds of stunning color movie footage!  The film provides us with a unique look back through time at a species that is presumed to be extinct. 

 Imperial Woodpecker, female
Image by William L. Rhein, courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

At two-feet tall, the magnificent Imperial Woodpecker of Mexico was the largest woodpecker in the world.  It probably became extinct in the late 20th century.  To date, there has been no known photo or film documentation available of this species in life.  But that changes today with the publication of a new paper in the October, 2011 issue of The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists' Union.

The paper, by lead author Martjan Lammertink along with four Cornell Lab of Ornithology staff members and two Mexican biologists, is entitled Film Documentation of the Probably Extinct Imperial Woodpecker (Campephilus Imperialis).   It details the remarkable 16-mm color film of an Imperial Woodpecker shot in 1956 by William L. Rhein, a dentist and amateur ornithologist.  Rhein shot the film with a hand-held camera from the back of a mule while camping in a remote location in the Sierra Madre Occidental in Durango state, Mexico.

Here is a link where you can view the 85-second color film, download the Auk article, hear Rhein narrate scenes from his 1956 expedition, read about the March 2010 follow up expedition to the film site, and see the painted Imperial Woodpecker cover art that serves as the cover of the current edition of The Auk:


Although Rhein has been widely attributed with the last sighting record of an Imperial Woodpecker, the existence of his film was not known until recently.  In the mid-1990s, biologist M. Lammertink discovered a mention of the film at Cornell in letters that Rhein and a colleague sent to ivorybill researcher James Tanner in 1962.  He tracked Rhein down and they viewed the film together in 1997.  In 2005 Rhein's nephew, R. Thorpe, donated the film to the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.        

 Imperial Woodpecker, female
Image by William L. Rhein, courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology 

Viewing the amazing film footage, you will see a female Imperial Woodpecker hitching up and foraging on the trunks of large Durango pines in its old-growth forest environment before launching into flight.  A March 2010 expedition to the film site gained insights on the bird's probable extinction, but turned up no evidence that Imperial Woodpeckers are still alive.  Unfortunately, the bird and its old-growth forest are gone now, making the film footage an especially precious find.

2 comments:

john said...

Besides Imperial Woodpeckers, Mexico was once probably the most environmentally diverse country on earth. It was the nexus of the distributions of many wildlife species.
I lived there for years. In my opinion, Mexico deserves strong condemnation for not preserving it's natural heritage. The devastation continues almost unabated to this day.
I mourn the loss of so much essential habitat. Poverty, and especially internal corruption at all levels of society are what are ruining this potentially great country.

Bill Benish said...

Yes, greed, ignorance and poor choices drive untold degradation across this planet,perhaps especially in Mexico. To your point, as much as I'd like to avoid any sadness and focus only on the wonder that was the Imperial Woodpecker, it's just not possible.

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