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Posts Tagged ‘extinct’


Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia
Frances Densmore at the Smithsonian Institution in 1916 during a recording session with the Blackfoot tribal leader called Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology.

I can understand that one might be able to resurrect a mastodon that was frozen in ice, but how do you resurrect an extinct language? Turns out the answer is lasers and wax recordings. (Takes me back to my father’s clunky wire recorder and what I had to say in my 6-year-old voice on the static-filled recording we call “The Birth of Willie.”)

Allison Meier writes at Hypoallergic, “Among the thousands of wax cylinders in the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology are songs and spoken-word recordings in 78 indigenous languages of California. Some of these languages, recorded between 1900 and 1938, no longer have living speakers. The history on the cylinders is difficult to hear. The objects have deteriorated over the decades, mold eating away at their forms, cracks breaking through the sound.

“A project underway at UC Berkeley is using innovative optical scan technology to transfer and digitally restore these recordings. … The initiative aims to preserve about 100 hours of audio. he collaborative restoration project involves linguist Andrew Garrett, digital librarian Erik Mitchell, and anthropologist Ira Jacknis, all at UC Berkeley, and utilizes a non-invasive scanning technique developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell. …

“Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber began his field audio collecting in 1901, a month after becoming the curator of the then-new museum. Although the recordings are limited, each only a few minutes long, and were captured at a subjective start and stop by Kroeber, they are invaluable for understanding the diverse languages of indigenous life in California.”

According to Hypoallergic, the project website warns that “due to ‘the culturally sensitive material of the content on these cylinders, and out of respect for the contemporary descendants of many of the performers on the recordings, access to the majority of the audio being digitized is currently restricted.’ One of the publicly available recordings is that of Ishi, recognized as the last surviving member of his Yahi tribe, who lived out his final years at Hearst Museum. His voice, among many being recovered from the noise of the wax cylinders, leads the recently-shared video from [National Science Foundation] below.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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Photo: Rafael Bessa
The Blue-eyed Ground-Dove was rediscovered in Brazil in 2015 after a 74-year absence from the scientific record. It was rediscovered more than 600 miles away from where it had last been seen in 1941.

Our birder friend Gene laughed at me when I told him that a woman I knew had spotted a Carolina Parakeet in New Shoreham. “Believe me,” he said. “She didn’t see a Carolina Parakeet. It’s extinct.”

Well, I suppose he was right, but I’ve always wanted to see a bird thought to be extinct — the Dodo, say, or the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

It turns out, hope is possible.

Sarah Gilman reported the story for Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Living Bird.

“The song was a surprise: A succession of coos like water drops, both monotonous and musical. They sounded sleepy, familiar, and yet just foreign enough to catch ornithologist Rafael Bessa’s attention.

“It was a brilliant June afternoon in 2015, and the song fluted from some rock outcroppings near the verdant palms of a vereda, or oasis, in an expanse of shrubby grasslands in southern Brazil.

“The country’s Amazon rainforest has long captured conservation headlines, but the cerrado — as this mixed savanna of grass, brush, and dry forest is called — covers 20 percent of the country’s landmass, and is more threatened.

“Bessa himself was there in the state of Minas Gerais to conduct an environmental assessment for a proposed agricultural operation. He had stumbled on the vereda while driving from his hotel to a distant survey site. There was no time to investigate the plaintive call, but the ‘woo-up … woo-up … woo-up’ sounded a bit faster and deeper than the Ruddy Ground-Doves that occur in abundance in the area. Bessa decided to return.

“The next day, he managed to record the mysterious call and summon its maker into a nearby bush with the playback. He aimed his camera and took a series of photographs, then zoomed in on the images.

“It was indeed a small dove — not necessarily the sort of quarry birders get twisted up over. Its back was an unspectacular greenish-brown, and its head, tail, and breast were a muted ruddy orange, blending to a creamy belly and a set of bony pink feet. But its eyes were arresting pools of spectacular cobalt blue, echoed by little half moons of the same dabbed across its wings.

“Bessa’s hands began to shake. ‘I had no doubt that I found something really special,’ he says.

“Seeking confirmation, he texted his friend Luciano Lima, the technical coordinator at the Observatório de Aves of the Instituto Butantan, São Paulo’s biological and health research center. Lima had done his master’s degree in a museum with an extensive specimen collection, and agreed to drive to his office to pull up the photos on his computer and see if he could identify the mystery dove.

“ ‘I was in my car,’ Lima recalls, ‘and he suddenly sent me one of the pictures, and I almost crashed!’ ”

Read more of this real-life detective story here. It contains a bonus in the form of new vocabulary words:

Just as there is a recently coined term for the last individual of a species — an endling — so too is there a much older phrase for those that reemerge — a Lazarus taxon.”

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Don’t you love it when something that is extinct turns out not to be extinct at all? Like coelacanths, which, according to Wikipedia, “were thought to have become extinct in the Late Cretaceous, around 66 million years ago, but were rediscovered in 1938 off the coast of South Africa.”

While I’m waiting for someone to prove unequivocally the existence of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, I will regale myself with Lazarus-like sea snakes in Australia.

I saw this Australian Associated Press story at the Guardian: “A species of sea snake thought to be extinct has been rediscovered off the Western Australian coast. A wildlife officer spotted two courting short-nosed sea snakes while patrolling in Ningaloo marine park on the state’s mid-north coast. …

“The Western Australian environment minister, Albert Jacob, said the discovery was especially important because they had never been seen at Ningaloo reef.

“A Department of Parks and Wildlife officer photographed the snakes on Ningaloo Reef and James Cook university scientists identified them.”

Maybe marine creatures such as sea snakes and coelacanths are more likely to be preserved than woodpeckers — hidden away in the ocean’s unexplored depths. Still, as a movie I reviewed, Revolution, made clear, the seas are threatened, too.

More on courting sea snakes at the Guardian.

Photo: Grant Giffen/AFP/Getty Images
The discovery of the short-nosed sea snake, previously thought to have been extinct, is significant because the species had never been seen in the Ningaloo marine park in Western Australia before.

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An old, falling-apart film of a heath hen has been unearthed.

Why is that thrilling? The heath hen is extinct.

Writes Carolyn Y. Johnson in the Boston Globe, “The bird stamps its feet on the ground, taking mincing dance steps through the corn stubble. Neck feathers flare like a headdress, and the male puffs out his neck, making a hollow, hooting call that has been lost to history.

“These courtship antics are captured on a silent, black-and-white film that is believed to be the only footage of something not seen for nearly a century: the extinct heath hen.

“The film, circa 1918, is the birding equivalent of an Elvis sighting, said Wayne Petersen of Mass Audubon — mind-blowing and transfixing to people who care. It will premier Saturday [March 8] at a birding conference in Waltham.

“Massachusetts officials commissioned the film nearly a century ago as part of an effort to preserve and study the game bird, once abundant from Southern New Hampshire to Northern Virginia. Then, like the heath hen, the film was largely forgotten.

“Martha’s Vineyard is where the last known heath hens lived, protected in a state preserve. But the last one vanished by 1932. …

“Jim Cardoza, a retired wildlife biologist who worked for the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said that for him, the film holds lessons about how conservation efforts have evolved.

“ ‘The thing that is striking to me is the habitat of the animal — it looks like they’re out in corn fields and open areas and things like that,’ Cardoza said. ‘That isn’t what the birds really inhabited — they were a scrub-land species.’ Conservationists at the time, he said, ‘didn’t know what the habitat requirements of the species even was.’  ”

Read the rest of the article and watch the film here.

I love the idea of a long-rumored, valuable film finally being found. It’s a great story. It’s also an argument for better filing systems.

State of Massachusetts woodcut, 1912. The fancier heath hens are males.

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When you consider all the minority languages that are endangered today — many of which I’ve blogged about (for example, here) — it seems a bit perverse to be bringing back Latin on the radio. But as one more way to interest people in languages, how bad can it be?

For the Finns, who have to speak many languages because hardly anyone speaks theirs, it’s just one more.

As John Tagliabue wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, the Internet has given a boost to “a weekly summary of world events and news broadcast by Finnish state radio — not in Finnish, but in classical Latin. …

“In recent weeks, the subjects have included the financial crisis in Cyprus, an unusually brilliant aurora borealis and the election of Pope Francis. …

“It may be no coincidence that the broadcast began in 1989, the year Communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and the Finns turned toward Western Europe. For educated Finns, Latin had long been the country’s link to Western culture, and they were required to study the language in school. …

“While the broadcasts once went out over the airwaves, with shortwave reception for listeners outside Finland, more and more listeners tune in to the program’s Web site, through podcasts and MP3 downloads.” More.

Image: Wikipedia
Cicero Denounces Catiline, fresco by Cesare Maccari, 1882–1888. It’s what Suzanne’s Mom thinks of when she thinks “Latin.”

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I’ve been reading Jason Elliot’s book Mirrors of the Unseen, which is about time he spent in Iran (not long before the green revolution of June 20, 2009, was trampled).

He’s a lovely writer if a bit overwhelming with his ability to compress centuries of history. I liked his earlier book, too, on Afghanistan, An Unexpected Light.

In the car on Sunday I read aloud a section of Mirrors that describes Elliot’s extended stay with Louise Firouz, an American who married an Iranian in the 1960s and has lived in Iran ever since — despite stints in prison and twice having all her family’s property confiscated.

The part I read aloud was about how she had researched, rediscovered, and bred a small horse thought to be extinct, one that turned out to have an ancestor going farther back than the Arabian horse. It’s the little Caspian, which was finally found, in pitiful shape, near the Caspian Sea and in Turkmenistan.

Nowadays you can find lots of videos of these horses on YouTube. I thought I would include this video, which is from a Caspian stud farm in Sweden.

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