Oct. 26, 2011

Study analyzes only known footage of the largest woodpecker that ever lived

illustration of imperial woodpecker
Evaristo Hernandez-Fernandez
This illustration of the imperial woodpecker was painted by graduate student Evaristo Hernández-Fernández, a Bartels Science Illustration intern, and is the cover image of the latest issue of The Auk.
imperial woodpecker in flight
William L. Rhein
Screen captures from the film of the imperial woodpecker
imperial woodpecker perched
William L. Rhein
The imperial woodpecker perched on a tree

The imperial woodpecker -- the largest woodpecker that ever lived -- probably went extinct in the late 20th century in the high mountains of Mexico, without anyone ever capturing photos or film of the 2-foot-tall, flamboyantly crested bird. Or so scientists thought -- until a biologist from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tracked down a 16-mm film shot in 1956 by a dentist from Pennsylvania.

The footage, which captures the last confirmed sighting of an imperial woodpecker in the wild, has now been restored and used to learn more about the species' behavior and its habitat -- determined by tracking down the exact filming location during a 2010 expedition.

The research appears in the October issue of The Auk, the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists' Union, and the cover features a painting of the woodpecker by graduate student Evaristo Hernández-Fernández, a Bartels Science Illustration intern.

"It is stunning to look back through time with this film and see the magnificent imperial woodpecker moving through its old-growth forest environment, and it is heartbreaking to know that both the bird and the forest are gone," said research associate Martjan Lammertink, lead author of the paper along with four Cornell lab staff members and two Mexican biologists.

In the 85-second color film, which is available for viewing online, a female imperial woodpecker hitches up, forages on the trunks of large Durango pines and then launches into flight.

The film was shot by dentist William Rhein, who filmed the bird with a hand-held movie camera from the back of a mule while camping in a remote location in the Sierra Madre Occidental in Durango state. In a 1997 interview with Lammertink, Rhein, who died in 1999, commented that the woodpecker was "like a great big turkey flying in front of me."

In March 2010, Lammertink and Tim Gallagher of the Cornell lab launched an expedition with members of the conservation group Pronatura Noroeste to identify and survey the film site. The expedition turned up no evidence that imperial woodpeckers are still alive. Only residents in their late 60s or older remembered the woodpecker, and no one reported seeing any of the birds after the 1950s.

The entire range of the imperial woodpecker lay in the high country of the Sierra Madre Occidental -- a rugged mountain range stretching some 900 miles south from the U.S.-Mexico border -- and the Transvolcanic Mountains of central Mexico. The species largely vanished in the late 1940s and 1950s as logging destroyed their old-growth pine forest habitat. Imperial woodpeckers were also frequently shot for food, for use in folk remedies or out of curiosity.

The imperial woodpecker was the closest relative of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which suffered a similar decline from habitat loss in the southeastern United States and Cuba. A 2005 study by the Cornell lab reported the rediscovery of an ivory-billed woodpecker in Arkansas, but subsequent regionwide surveys did not find evidence of a surviving population.

Other authors of the article are Tim Gallagher, Ken Rosenberg, John Fitzpatrick and Eric Liner of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Jorge Rojas-Tomé of Organización Vida Silvestre and Patricia Escalante of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.