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Identifying Anomalous Reports of Putatively Extinct Species and Why It Matters

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As species become very rare and approach extinction, purported sightings can stir controversy, especially when scarce management resources are at stake. We used quantitative methods to identify reports that do not fit prior sighting patterns. We also examined the effects of including records that meet different evidentiary standards on quantitative extinction assessments for four charismatic bird species that might be extinct: Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis), Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis), Nukupu`u (Hemignathus lucidus), and O`ahu `Alauahio (Paroreomyza maculata). For all four species the probability of there being a valid sighting today, given the past pattern of verified sightings, was estimated to be very low. The estimates of extinction dates and the chance of new sightings, however, differed considerably depending on the criteria used for data inclusion. When a historical sighting record lacked long periods without sightings, the likelihood of new sightings declined quickly with time since the last confirmed sighting. For species with this type of historical record, therefore, new reports should meet an especially high burden of proof to be acceptable. Such quantitative models could be incorporated into the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List criteria to set evidentiary standards required for unconfirmed sightings of “possibly extinct” species and to standardize extinction assessments across species.
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Keywords: IUCN Red List; Lista Roja UICN; avistamiento; calidad de datos; critically endangered; críticamente en peligro; data quality; especímenes de museo; extinción; extinction; museum specimens; persistencia de especies; sighting record; species persistence

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Center for Conservation and Biodiversity, 75 North Eagleville Road, U-3043, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269, U.S.A. 2: Department of Biology, Tufts University, Medford, MA 02155, U.S.A.

Publication date: February 1, 2010

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