Liberian Greenbul: Scientists Discover World’s ‘Most Elusive’ Songbird Might Not Have Existed

For years, the Liberian greenbul was said to be the world’s “most elusive” songbird, as scientists spent multiple decades searching for the bird after a few sightings were reported in the early 1980s. But a new study published Thursday in the Journal of Ornithology suggests that the extremely rare bird might have been an example of a similar species all along.

As detailed in a report from Gizmodo, the Liberian greenbul was first sighted by an ornithologist named Wulf Gatter, who had spent an extensive period of time observing birds in the West African nation of Liberia in the early 1980s. Although the mysterious songbird was similar in appearance to the Icterine greenbul, it did have one key difference: white markings on its feathers. After nine separate sightings, Gatter was able to capture a specimen in 1984, and that was when he had named the bird and established it as a new species.

For the next 26 years, it was impossible for scientists to return to the forests where the Liberian greenbul was originally found, due to civil wars in 1989 and 2003. Trips were made to the area in 2010 and 2013, but there was no sign found of the “elusive” songbird. This led some researchers to wonder if the bird Gatter had spotted three decades ago was actually a variant of the Icterine greenbul. Meanwhile, Gatter himself had asked his fellow ornithologists to find out whether the bird he discovered was really a new species or not.

“I wrote Birds of Liberia, and traveled all over in Liberia and didn’t find it. That was my reason for my decision to ask specialists to prove it,” said Gatter in an interview with Gizmodo.

Based on new DNA analysis conducted by researchers from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, the Liberian greenbul and Icterine greenbul have near-identical genomes to each other. According to UPI, it is now believed that the specimen Gatter found was, in fact, an Icterine greenbul with a nutritional deficiency, hence the white marks on its wings making its plumage different from other examples of the species.

Previous genetic analyses on greenbul species had yielded major genetic differences, which gave the researchers more proof that the Liberian and Icterine greenbul are the same bird. Still, a statement from lead researcher Martin Collinson stressed that it cannot be said with 100 percent certainty that the two birds are really from the same species.

“We can’t say definitively that the Liberian greenbul is the same bird as the Iceterine Greenbul but we have presented enough evidence that makes any other explanation seem highly unlikely. The genetic work was performed independently by scientists here in Aberdeen and in Dresden to make sure there could be no error — we both came to the same conclusion.”

Reacting to the new study’s findings, Gatter told Gizmodo that he was “quite disappointed” by what Collinson and his colleagues had discovered. He told the publication that he noticed the Liberian greenbul showing different behaviors than the average Icterine greenbul, and that the physical differences between both birds was obvious. Still, he noted, in conclusion, that he was glad the DNA sequencing results might have just solved the mystery of the “elusive” songbird once and for all.

[Featured Image by Simon_g/Shutterstock]