The Canary Islands Oystercatcher: Extinct in 1913 still providing answers to scientists

Scientists at Aberdeen University have used DNA tests to prove that an extinct bird species unique to the Canary Islands – whose loss was considered a sizeable blow for genetic diversity – is actually almost identical to types commonly found in the UK and throughout Europe.

The last known specimen of the now extinct Canary Islands Oystercatcher was shot in its native habitat of the Spanish islands in 1913 by British ornithologist David Bannerman and only eight specimens exist in museum collections.

Canary Islands Oystercatchers

Canary Islands Oystercatchers were crow-sized wading birds which foraged on beaches hunting for marine invertebrates.

photo: Alexander Lees Canary Island Oystercatcher, Liverpool World Museum

photo: Alexander Lees, Canary Island Oystercatcher, Liverpool World Museum

It was almost entirely black earning it the local name of ‘sea raven’ on the island of Fuerteventura. This black plumage lead to suggestions it was more closely linked to the African Oystercatcher, which is also all black.

However, DNA sequencing of the extinct bird has revealed it is far more closely linked to the Eurasian Oystercatcher – so close that it could be considered to be the same species.

The similarity of the DNA means that the loss of the unique Canary Island Oystercatcher will have resulted in the loss of less genetic biodiversity than previously thought.

An international team of scientists led by the University of Aberdeen isolated and sequenced DNA from two museum specimens held in Manchester Museum and the World Museum, Liverpool and then compared it to fresh samples from African Black and Eurasian Oystercatchers. The results are published in the scientific journal Ibis.

There was little evidence to suggest the Canary Island Oystercatcher warrants status as a species in its own right, and should be better treated as a subspecies of the Eurasian Oystercatcher.

Professor Martin Collinson from the University of Aberdeen said:

“The black and white Eurasian Oystercatcher is a common sight in the UK and across the continent.

“Being almost entirely black, it was suspected the Canary Islands Oystercatcher might have been a variant of the almost identical African Black Oystercatcher”.

“However, our study shows that despite its appearance, the Canary Islands Oystercatcher is genetically much more similar to the Eurasian Oystercatcher and in fact is so close a match, that it is more than likely a subspecies of Eurasian, rather than a species in its own right.

“Unlike the specimen that Bannerman shot in 1913, it appears in this instance that we have dodged a bullet as no significant genetic diversity has been lost with the extinction of the Canary Islands Oystercatcher.”

Photo:Alexander Lees  Tony Parker assistant curator of vertebrate zoology at Liverpool World Museum taking a toe pad sample for DNA analysis

Photo:Alexander Lees, Tony Parker assistant curator of vertebrate zoology at Liverpool World Museum taking a toe pad sample for DNA analysis

The reasons for the Canary Islands Oystercatcher’s extinction are not fully understood but the introduction of cats and rats, and potentially human hunting are thought to have had an impact, as was the case with the loss of many island species. The impact of humans on the marine ecosystem is also thought to have played a role with people competing with the oystercatchers for shellfish.

Scientific bird naming committees like the International Ornithological Congress and Birdlife International will now have to decide whether to downgrade the species.

Dr Alexander Lees, Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology at Manchester Metropolitan University, and co-author of the paper added:

“Although the Canary Island Oystercatcher is less distinct than we thought, it was still a unique population and its loss a reminder of how vulnerable to extinction island bird communities are. Oystercatchers weren’t the first bird species to disappear from the Canaries but we can fight to make sure they are among the last.”

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