AUTHOR BLOG: Ancient Fossil Bones of a Recently Extinct Cormorant

Junya Watanabe

Linked paper: Pleistocene fossils from Japan show that the recently extinct Spectacled Cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus) was a relict by J. Watanabe, H. Matsuoka, and Y. Hasegawa, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 135:4, October 2018.

The new and heretofore unfigured species of the birds of North America
Live reconstruction of the Spectacled Cormorant from study skins. Artwork by Joseph Wolf, from Elliott (1869), The New and Heretofore Unfigured Species of the Birds of North America, Volume 2.

Numerous extinction events have taken place in geologically recent time, caused to varying degrees by human activity. Although relatively much is known about how humans have given “final blows” to animal species in recent history, little is known about the long-term biogeographic and evolutionary history of extinct animals. This is where archaeological and fossil records play crucial roles. One of the most (in)famous examples of historic extinctions is the case of the Great Auk, which was once widespread in the North Atlantic Ocean but was driven to extinction in the mid-19th century due to hunting by humans. There is one potential parallel, though less widely known, in the North Pacific Ocean; a large seabird species called Spectacled Cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus) was driven to extinction almost contemporaneously. This species was first discovered in the 18th century on Bering Island, part of the Commander Islands, by German explorer Georg Steller, who became the only naturalist to observe the birds in life. Following the colonization of the island by humans in the early 19th century, this species was hunted by humans, and it was driven to extinction in the 1850s. As there has been no record of the species outside Bering Island, it is considered to have been restricted to the island throughout its existence. Our new study in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, however, reports the first definitive record of the cormorant species outside Bering Island, demonstrating that the species was in fact not restricted to the island in the past.

Through our study of Japanese fossil birds, my colleagues and I identified 13 fossil bones of the Spectacled Cormorant from upper Pleistocene deposits (dated ~120,000 years ago) in Japan. The fossil bones were recovered from Shiriya, northeastern Japan, through excavations led by my co-author Yoshikazu Hasegawa of the Gunma Museum of Natural History. Through detailed examination of the bird fossils from the site, it became evident that a cormorant species much larger than any of the four native cormorant species in present-day Japan was represented in the material. At first, we suspected the presence of a new species, but this turned out not to be the case. Through a literature survey, I came across a 19th-century paper by American ornithologists Leonhard Stejneger and Frederic Lucas that described bones of the Spectacled Cormorant collected on Bering Island. The dimensions and illustrations given in the paper were strikingly similar to the Japanese fossils. I decided to visit the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where the bones described by Stejneger and Lucas are stored. After careful examination, the Japanese fossils turned out to agree in every detail with bones of the Spectacled Cormorant from Bering Island, rather than with any other species compared, to the extent that I was convinced that the Japanese fossils belong to the same species as the Bering Island bones.

The occurrence of the Spectacled Cormorant from Japan is the first definitive record of this species outside Bering Island and indicates that the species underwent a drastic range contraction or shift since the Pleistocene. In other words, the population of this species on Bering Island discovered by Steller was in fact a relict, with most of the species’ past distribution already lost. Changes in oceanographic conditions might be responsible for the local disappearance of the species in Japan; paleoclimate studies have shown that the oceanic productivity around Shiriya dropped drastically in the Last Glacial Maximum (~20,000 years ago), which would have seriously affected the population of the species. Although it might be possible that hunting of that species by humans took place in prehistoric Japan, no archaeological evidence for that is known so far. The entire picture of the recent extinction event of the Spectacled Cormorant might be more complex than previously thought, as is becoming evident for some other extinct seabirds in other parts of the world.

Further reading

Fuller, E. (2001). Extinct Birds, revised edition. Cornell University Press, New York, NY.

Hume, J. P. (2017). Extinct Birds, 2nd edn. Bloomsbury Natural History, London.