Expedition in DR Congo captures photos of long-lost Helmetshrike

In a groundbreaking , scientists have captured images of a bird long believed to be lost to the annals of history. The elusive Yellow-crested Helmetshrike, scientifically known as Prionops alberti, had faded into obscurity for nearly two decades, earning the status of a ‘lost bird' by the American Bird Conservancy.

The remarkable discovery unfolded in the depths of the Itombwe Massif, a nestled in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Led by University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) researchers, the six-week expedition unveiled the presence of the helmetshrikes, with Cameron Rutt, Ph.D., from the American Bird Conservancy, verifying and affirming the authenticity of the photographs.

Dr. Michael Harvey, an ornithologist and UTEP assistant professor, expressed astonishment at encountering the , remarking, “It was a mind-blowing experience to come across these birds. We knew they might be possible here, but I was not prepared for how spectacular and unique they would appear in life.” Alongside Dr. Harvey, UTEP Professor of Biological Sciences, Dr. Eli Greenbaum, co-led the expedition, accompanied by ornithologist Matt Brady and a team of Congolese researchers from the Centre de Recherche en Sciences Naturelles.

The expedition, spanning over 75 miles of rugged terrain, offered a glimpse into the of the Itombwe Massif, where the team meticulously studied birds, amphibians, and reptiles. In the cloud forests adorning the mountain slopes, Harvey and Brady stumbled upon the helmetshrike—a striking black bird adorned with a vibrant yellow “helmet.” The birds, described as noisy and active groups, frequented the midstory of the forest, adding an element of serendipity to the expedition.

Endemic to the western slopes of the Albertine Rift of Central Africa, the helmetshrike's discovery hints at the region's untapped biodiversity. Despite historical inaccessibility due to conflict and security concerns, recent improvements in safety have facilitated scientific . Approximately 18 birds were sighted across three sites during the expedition, sparking optimism regarding the species' population health within the remote forests.

However, looming threats such as mining, logging, and agricultural encroachment cast a shadow over the region's fragile ecosystems. Harvey emphasized the urgent need for collaborative efforts among researchers and organizations to safeguard the Itombwe Massif's forests and the diverse species they harbor. “Right now is a golden opportunity to protect these so that we don't lose species like the helmetshrike before they are known and studied,” he asserted.

In addition to the helmetshrike's rediscovery, the expedition yielded other significant findings. The herpetology team unearthed the Red-bellied Squeaker Frog, or Arthroleptis hematogaster, unseen since the 1950s—a rediscovery validated by Dr. David Blackburn from the University of Florida's Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Robert Kirken, Dean of UTEP's College of Science, lauded the expedition's impact, underscoring the university's commitment to global scientific exploration. “UTEP's global impact is showcased through not just the accomplishments of its graduates but also through groundbreaking and captivating discoveries, exemplified here by the contributions of Drs. Greenbaum and Harvey,” remarked Dr. Kirken, expressing hope that the discovery would inspire future generations of scientists worldwide.

Source: University of Texas at El Paso

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