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UTEP scientists capture first known photographs of tropical bird long thought lost

The first-ever photograph of the yellow-crested helmetshrike, or Prionops alberti, was taken during a recent expedition led by scientists at The University of Texas at El Paso.
Matt Brady
/
The University of Texas at El Paso
The first-ever photograph of the yellow-crested helmetshrike, or Prionops alberti, was taken during a recent expedition led by scientists at The University of Texas at El Paso.

The yellow-crested helmetshrike is a rare bird species endemic to Africa that had been listed as “lost” by the American Bird Conservancy when it hadn’t been seen in nearly two decades. Until now.

Scientists from the University of Texas at El Paso were able to locate and capture the first-ever photos of the bird during a six-week expedition through the cloud forests of a mountain range in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It was just one of several exciting discoveries made during the trip, which was co-led by UTEP biological sciences professors Dr. Eli Greenbaum, a herpetologist, and Dr. Michael Harvey, an ornithologist.

Greenbaum joined the Standard to talk about the experience. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: So what were you set out to find on this expedition? Was it just a looking for whatever species that you could find, and you were sort of open to all of the surprises?

Eli Greenbaum: Well, there’s a long history of research in the Albertine Rift mountains, which are the mountains sort of along the eastern border of Democratic Republic of the Congo. And it is one of the most biodiverse places in continental Africa. And within that, the Itombwe Plateau, where we focus our research, is sort of the crown jewel of all of that.

Congo was a Belgian colony back in the late 19th, early 20th century. And for some reason, the Belgians just didn’t spend a lot of time around Itombwe. But the little bit that they did was absolutely incredible. They found frogs that are in Itombwe and nowhere else.

So we kind of had an inkling that this was an area that has really high biodiversity, but also poorly known biodiversity.

Now, what are some of the reasons why it’s difficult to explore? I mean, it sounds like it’s just frankly a sort of difficult area to traverse. 

Yes. I mean, the terrain is really rugged.

So back in the colonial era, there was a road that the Belgians made for mining purposes. And we actually followed part of that road during the expedition that happened in December and January. But it’s been many decades since anyone used that road. And there are now trees growing in the middle of the road.

Every couple of hundred feet there’s a tree that has fallen down in the road. So you have to figure out, “gosh, okay, do I jump over this tree? Do I climb over it? Do I crawl down into the muddy water underneath it and sort of scoot underneath it?” So it’s like an obstacle course.

At one point during the expedition we walked 14 miles in seven hours through torrential downpour. So it’s not something that the average person would want to do. It’s really tough going through the terrain.

Now, in addition to that, Central Africa in general is really well-endowed for tropical disease. So you have everything from deadly Ebola to dengue fever, yellow fever, malaria. And then there are several armed groups that are active in and around Itombwe.

University of Texas at El Paso scientists recently trekked through eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and discovered two long-lost species.
Eli Greenbaum
/
The University of Texas at El Paso
University of Texas at El Paso scientists recently trekked through eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and discovered two long-lost species.

So why is it worth it? Why is it important or valuable to learn about these species that are so rare that they can only be found here, and it’s such a such a treacherous journey?

Well, as a herpetologist, finding, discovering and describing new species is really what my passion is all about.

But in general, understanding the biodiversity that we share our planet with is really important for understanding, you know, the overall picture of biodiversity on planet Earth. And we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. You know, unfortunately, species are going extinct all over the planet for a variety of reasons. So it’s really a race against time right now to be able to understand what biodiversity is there and to try to conserve as much of it as possible before it is wiped out.

Well, I know you’re not the bird guy, but I have to ask – with this bird that’s getting so much attention that we thought was lost – were you there for those moments when it was spotted, and can you describe what that excitement was like?

Yeah. So the ornithologists were really excited when they saw that bird. And, you know, I’m not really a bird watcher, but they got so excited when one of the birds came into view of our camp, that one of them just kind of shoved binoculars in front of my face and said “look at this!”

So I was really happy to be a part of the team that allowed that discovery to come to light. Because every time, you know, a species that is feared lost is seen again, that kind of re-energizes people to ensure that conservation measures are in place, again ensuring that the birds and the frogs and all of the other biodiversity that occurs in this incredible place is going to be there for future generations.

The UTEP scientists also rediscovered the Red-bellied Squeaker Frog, or Arthroleptis hematogaster, which had not been seen since the 1950s.
Eli Greenbaum
/
The University of Texas at El Paso
The UTEP scientists also rediscovered the Red-bellied Squeaker Frog, or Arthroleptis hematogaster, which had not been seen since the 1950s.

What was the most exciting thing, for you, that you saw out there? 

Well, for me, as a herpetologist, the most exciting thing was, incredibly, when I was having a cup of coffee in my tent and one of the porters who went by said, “sir, can you take a look at this?” And I kind of opened up the flap of my tent, and there was a really rare snake crawling across the ground about a couple feet away from my tent.

So I had not yet gotten dressed, but I immediately recognized how rare it was that I jumped out barefoot into the mud to catch the thing. And, I’m still not quite sure exactly what it is. So we’re going to be looking at the DNA when we have a chance to analyze the samples in my lab.

It’s kind of like a piece of a puzzle, and I’m not exactly sure where it fits yet. But once we get the DNA sequenced, we can compare it to the DNA of every other thing we have ever found in Congo. And then we’ll know exactly what it is. So that’s going to be really exciting.

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