A team of researchers were thrilled to have discovered a new species of colorful songbird in the Galápagos Islands only to find out that the bird was already extinct. The disappearance of the San Cristóbal Island Vermilion Flycatcher marks the first modern extinction of a Galápagos bird species.

The study, published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, involved studying Vermilion Flycatchers using genetic techniques. They also analyzed tissue specimens preserved in the California Academy of Sciences

Scientists from the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (SFBBO), California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco State University (SFSU) and the University of New Mexico (UNM) found that Vermilion Flycatchers branched out into 12 subspecies. The two subspecies Pyrocephalus (San Cristóbal Vermilion Flycatcher) and Pyrocephalus nanus were determined to be genetically different from one another.

Galápagos bird

A drawer of Vermilion Flycatchers by Jack Dumbacher/California Academy of Sciences

However, they realized that the San Cristóbal Vermilion Flycatcher has not been seen in the island of San Cristobal since 1987. This extinct Galápagos bird is a lot smaller and had different color from other Vermilion Flycatchers subspecies.

The cause of the birds’ extinction is still unknown. Some believe that rats and the parasitic Philornis downsi flies played a role in this. the rats ate the eggs while the flies infected the chicks. Now, they are also observed killing other of Vermilion Flycatchers.

However, study co-author Alvaro Jaramillo, a biologist at the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, does not give up the hope of sighting the extinct subspecies in the future. Their study should motivate others to seek out the birds, Jaramillio suggests.

Nevertheless, Jack Dumbacher, co-author and a curator of ornithology and mammalogy from the California Academy of Sciences says: “Sadly, we appear to have lost the San Cristóbal Vermilion Flycatcher, but we hope that one positive outcome of this research is that we can redouble our efforts to understand its decline and highlight the plight of the remaining species before they follow the same fate.”