A new study is shedding light on the mystery of the elusive songbird Liberian greenbul – which according to a group of researchers, might have never existed at all. Scientists have looked for the bird for decades.

The new study, published recently in the Journal of Ornithology, claims those who have been looking for the Liberian greenbul were looking for a non-existing bird. In fact, they say the songbird may be a variant of an identified bird species.

Liberian Greenbul not real, Icterine greenbul mistaken for Liberian
The only known specimen of the so-called Liberian greenbul. Image credit: University of Aberdeen

The bird was thought to be extremely elusive for decades, as it was last seen during the 1980s in Liberia. The so-called Liberian greenbul appeared in the forests of West Africa in the early 1980s. The “elusive” bird was said to be similar to an already identified species known as Icterine greenbul. The Liberian’s feathers had white markings, unlike the Icterine.

Liberian greenbul was probably mistaken for another bird species

Scientists embarked on a mission to look for it, and nine months later a single specimen was caught. The 1984 finding allowed ornithologists to name a new species of bird.

Due to the civil wars, scientists couldn’t return to Liberia for 25 years. Some researchers went to the sighting area in 2010 and 2013, but no sight of the Liberian greenbul. There’s only one specimen of the alleged bird although many have tried collecting more. The bird was so allegedly elusive and odd that it was categorized as Critically Endangered up until 2016.

“The Liberian Greenbul has gained almost ‘mythical’ status since it was sighted in the ‘80s,” said Martin Collinson of the University of Aberdeen in a statement.

Since no one else had found the songbird, scientists began wondering if the Liberian greenbul was real. A team of researchers at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland decided to see if the Liberian greenbul was a myth or not, as they believe it could have been mistaken for an already classified bird species.

DNA tests revealed little differences between Icterine and Liberian greenbuls

The researchers found evidence that suggested the Liberian greenbul was not a separate species, but instead it was probably mistaken with an Icterine greenbul.

“We can’t say definitely that the Liberian Greenbul is the same bird as the Icterine Greenbul, but we have presented enough evidence that makes any other explanation seem highly unlikely,” suggested Collinson.

Liberian Greenbul not real, Icterine greenbul mistaken for Liberian
An Icterine Greenbul. Image credit: Drexel University

The team conducted a series of DNA tests and found no significant genetic differences between the two species, suggesting that they are the same bird. They noted the white markings on the Liberian were possibly due to a nutrition deficiency.

The researchers believe it’s likely their findings are correct, as other studies of other greenbul species show considerable differences between species. The team’s theory could still be refuted if a Liberian greenbul specimen is ever found. However, it is possible the “elusive” bird it’s just a myth.

Source: University of Aberdeen