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“Species X:” The blue-eyed dove rediscovered in a global deforestation hotspot

  • Even as scientists are still getting reacquainted with the species, they’re hoping to come up with a plan to save it from disappearing once again.
  • The researchers are not releasing the exact location where they found the species or even the recording of its song that was played at the Brazilian Birdwatching Festival until they have finished drawing up and implementing the conservation plan.
  • The Blue-eyed Ground-dove is found only in the Cerrado, a wooded savanna ecosystem in central and east Brazil that might be just as endangered as its newly rediscovered inhabitant.

The Blue-eyed Ground-dove hasn’t been seen since 1941 and was believed to be extinct — that is, until this year, when scientists revealed that they’d managed to document twelve of the birds in two different locations in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.

The Critically Endangered dove has striking blue eyes and dark blue spots on its wings that stand out starkly against its reddish plumage. Its song was heard by the public, perhaps for the first time ever, at the Brazilian Birdwatching Festival last month, where ornithologist Rafael Bessa announced the rediscovery.

But even as scientists are still getting reacquainted with the species, they’re hoping to come up with a plan to save it from disappearing once again.

Bessa was part of a team of scientists supported by the Butantan Bird Observatory, Rainforest Trust, and SAVE Brasil (BirdLife International in Brazil) that worked in secret to document the Blue-eyed Ground-dove (Columbina cyanopis) in the wild. They could only confirm the existence of those 12 individuals, however, so the researchers have also been working on a plan to ensure the long-term survival of the dove by conserving its habitat.

“We are now worried about the conservation of the species,” Bessa said in a post on Birdlife International’s website. “We are working on several fronts to build this plan. The main action is to ensure that the area where it was found becomes a protected area, which would benefit not only the Blue-eyed Ground-Dove, but many other threatened species occurring there.”

One of the first ever photos of the Critically Endangered Blue-eyed Ground-dove. Photo by Rafael Bessa.

The team is not releasing the exact location where they found the species or even the recording of its song that was played at the Brazilian Birdwatching Festival until they have finished drawing up and implementing the conservation plan.

The Blue-eyed Ground-dove is found only in the Cerrado, a wooded savanna ecosystem in central and east Brazil that might be just as endangered as its newly rediscovered inhabitant. The Cerrado has been so impacted by industrial agriculture — especially cattle ranching and soy production — that the University of Vermont’s Gillian Galford recently called it “a new hotspot for tropical deforestation.”

Galford was part of a study that found that cropland within a 45-million-hectare (about 111-million-acre) study area in the Cerrado has nearly doubled over the past decade, increasing from 1.3 million hectares in 2003 to 2.5 million hectares in 2013. Almost three-fourths of this agricultural expansion occurred on land that formerly hosted intact native Cerrado vegetation.

This could end up impacting not just the Cerrado but the entire region, including the Amazon rainforest, since cropland doesn’t recycle as much water as native vegetation does during the dry season. Scientists are warning that if agricultural expansion continues in the Cerrado, as the Brazilian government is pushing for, there could be less rainfall overall and even a delay in the start of the critical rainy season.

Which is why, as noted by Bessa, a conservation plan aimed at securing habitat for the Blue-eyed Ground-dove would benefit a number of other species, as well. And conversely, without such a plan, the rapid rates of habitat loss in the region could mean that other species, some of them perhaps even still unknown to science, could quietly go extinct without our ever knowing it.

Only 12 individuals are confirmed: Blue-eyed Ground Dove (Columbina cyanopis). Photo by Rafael Bessa.

“Increasing the knowledge on Brazilian biodiversity is the first step to ensure its conservation,” Luciano Lima of the Instituto Butantan said in the Birdlife International post. “And, by doing so, we contribute to a better quality of life and health for all species, including our own.”

The doves’ known territory is no more than 14 acres. According to Pedro Develey, executive director of SAVE Brasil, funds are being raised right now to purchase the land. Develey told Discover Magazine that he hopes to see the bird’s territory eventually placed under public protection and management.

To craft the conservation plan for the Blue-eyed Ground-dove, the researchers who made the rediscovery are studying its biology, including breeding and feeding habits. They are also exploring other regions with geography and environmental features similar to the Cerrado in an attempt to find additional populations.

“So far we have visited many areas in three states, but the species was located only in two sites close together, both in the state of Minas Gerais,” said ornithologist Wagner Nogueira, who was part of the team that made the rediscovery, “which reinforces the need for urgent action to guarantee its survival.”