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‘Lost’ bat species rediscovered after 120 years in the wilderness

More than a century after it was “lost”, the New Guinea big-eared bat has been discovered by Queensland researchers working in Papua New Guinea’s forests. The critically endangered bat was thought to be…

Back after going missing for more than a century: the New Guinea big-eared bat. Julie Broken-Brow/supplied

More than a century after it was “lost”, the New Guinea big-eared bat has been discovered by Queensland researchers working in Papua New Guinea’s forests. The critically endangered bat was thought to be extinct, and the discovery shows there is still much to learn about biodiversity in our region.

On July 25, 2012, Catherine Hughes and Julie Broken-Brow caught a small, female bat in a trap at the edge of a forest in southeast Papua New Guinea (PNG). But the bat didn’t match any species known to exist. And so began a fascinating detective story about a species that hadn’t been spotted for more than 120 years.

The land of the microbats

As part of a fauna survey, Catherine and Julie ventured into the lowland forests 200 km southeast of Port Moresby, in a region known as the Cloudy Bay Forest Management Area. The survey was part of a University of Queensland study, carried out with the permission of local landowners and sponsored by Cloudy Bay Sustainable Forestry Ltd, which manages the area.

Julie Broken-Brow recording the echolocation calls of a microbat Catherine Hughes

One aim of the project was to determine how small, insectivorous bats — known as “microbats” — respond to sustainably harvested forests over time. Not enough is known about the biology of microbats throughout the world, and particularly in PNG.

One of the most common methods for surveying them is by acoustic detection, which involves recording their ultrasonic echolocation calls. Every microbat species has a unique call, which can be used to identify the species – as long as you know what its call is like.

We were attempting to collate a reference library of the echolocation calls for microbat species in this area of PNG. We did this by trapping as many different microbats as possible, identifying them and then recording their calls when we released them.

Catherine Hughes setting up a trap in a creek line with help from forestry staff Julie Broken-Brow

Return of the lost bat

When Catherine and Julie captured their bat, on the edge of logged forest near an old coconut plantation now covered with grassland, they thought it was either the small-toothed nyctophilus (Nyctophilus microdon) or a Pharotis – the genus to which the New Guinea big-eared bat belongs.

The trap that caught the bat was only at the site for two nights, making this discovery particularly lucky.

The bat was ethically euthanized and taken to the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery in Port Moresby. Specimens like this are an important reference for future research, and also a good way to identify species whose identity cannot be confirmed in the field.

In March 2014 the bat was loaned to the Australian Museum in Sydney, where researcher Harry Parnaby identified it as Pharotis imogene – the New Guinea big-eared bat.

New Guinea big-eared bat (Pharotis imogene) Catherine Hughes

Missing for a whole century

It is the first record of the species since 1890 – meaning that this bat was missing in action for the entire 20th century.

Measurements of the new specimen are consistent with those of the first specimens collected in 1890 from a coastal village called Kamali, 120 km west of our study site.

The New Guinea big-eared bat, like the rest of the genera Pharotis and Nyctophilus, is distinguished by a combination of two features: large ears and a simple “nose-leaf” structure immediately behind the nostrils. Collectively, the group of species is known as long-eared (or big-eared) bats. P. imogene has larger ears than most.

Conservation challenges

It is very rare to recapture a species after more than 120 years. This discovery also extends the known range of the species in PNG’s Central Province by around 120 km to the east.

Catherine Hughes inspecting the trap that snagged a once-a-century discovery Julie Broken-Brow

Its current status on the IUCN Red List is Critically Endangered (possibly extinct) – the good news is that this discovery confirms that it’s not extinct. It is also listed in the top 100 of the world’s most unique and endangered mammals.

While this rediscovery may not change the critically endangered status of the species, confirming the species current existence is still valuable for its conservation. This means that a recent capture location can be used to target the species for ecological studies.

Nothing is known of the ecology of New Guinea big-eared bat, and therefore more surveys are needed in the coastal lowland rainforests of southern PNG. Many lowland rainforest habitats are being disturbed by timber logging (both sustainable and otherwise), clearing for development, and agriculture. The effect of these disturbances on the bat is unknown; however if the species is found in low numbers, it may be threatened by local disturbances.

A biodiversity hotspot

PNG is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The country accounts for about 7% of the world’s species diversity, with about 276 known mammal species, 314 freshwater fish, 641 amphibian and reptile species, 740 birds, and many more. According to the World Wildlife Fund, between 1998 and 2008, 1060 new species were discovered, including a blue-eyed spotted cuscus, a 2.5 metre freshwater shark, and a giant bent-toed gecko.

In 2013, a rapid biodiversity survey conducted by the Wildlife Conservation Society in a remote location of PNG (Hindenburg Wall) discovered at least 89 new plant and animal species. These surveys show that PNG’s biodiversity numbers will continue to grow as we survey more of the country.

Yet at the same time, major losses to PNG’s biodiversity are being caused by rapid human population growth, forest degradation by illegal logging and trading, the establishment of plantations (palm oil, coconut, coffee), mining and forestry, and climate change. While our team are delighted with rediscovering this bat from extinction, we are still saddened by the plight of other animals such as the Bramble Cay melomys in nearby Torres Strait.

Who knows what other species are out there? If we’re not careful, they might be gone before we can find them.

This article was co-authored by Catherine Hughes. The New Guinea big-eared bat was rediscovered as part of her Honours project at the University of Queensland.

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48 Comments sorted by

  1. Joseph Ferguson

    Doctoral Candidate in Science Education at Deakin University

    Congratulations on the find. Very awesome to find a so called Lazarus species. Just wondering about the practice of euthanising the specimen. Is there not a risk that it could possibly be an endling (the last of its kind) and should not you want to keep as many alive as possible?

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    1. Colin Trainor

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Joseph Ferguson

      This is a slightly contentious issue, but I think many ecologists and taxonomists would suggest (or argue) that specimens are still genuinely needed. The IUCN conservation threat status for this bat "critically endangered" (possibly extinct) was done on the best available data - ie complete absence of data for 130 years. The bat obviously may not be threatened at all - though habitat loss has and will continue to occur through its range (whatever that actually is, it is still essentially unknown).

      This blog link below gives a measured review of the mainly for and also against, with referencing (mainly birds, but relates more broadly).

      http://www.universityofalaskamuseumbirds.org/reaffirming-the-specimen-gold-standard/

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    2. Luke Leung

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Joseph Ferguson

      Hi Joseph,

      The lodgement of a specimen in the PNG national museum is useful for the conservation of this species because any mining or logging exploration will now have to address any potential impacts on this species.

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    3. Luke Leung

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Colin Trainor

      Colin,

      Thank you for the link. It is very useful for people wanting to make an informed view. I understand why so many people are against taking voucher specimens for museums.

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    4. Maddy Jones

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Joseph Ferguson

      If euthanasing this animal is what separates the species from extinction then it's doomed anyway.

      This way there is proof to be used that the species does exist and is in the region. This one animal's death may save the lives of the rest of her species, and many other animals besides if the area is now conserved.

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    5. Julie Broken-Brow

      PhD Candidate in Microbat Ecology at University of Queensland

      In reply to Joseph Ferguson

      Hi Joseph

      We took long and careful thought before we decided to voucher the specimen in PNG. There is certainly arguments for and against and I fully acknowledge this. However in this case, I stick by our decision. At the time, we weren't able to even identify the species, there was a strong chance we may have discovered a completely new species to science. The only way to determine this was to voucher it so that long-eared bat experts (such as Dr Parnaby) could identify it in comparison to the…

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  2. Craig Higson

    Conservationist

    Sounds like fantastic work, but surely with the technology today - digital photography, video for e.g, combining this with taking measurements and blood samples for DNA would have been sufficient and negated the need to kill what is clearly an individual of a 'critically endangered' species?

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    1. Craig Higson

      Conservationist

      In reply to Luke Leung

      I think maybe museum curators need to 'rethink' their requirements. At least until the status of a species is more properly understood. However, thanks for the response and the other links, and hopefully this will help with the wider conservation issues in the region.

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    2. Colin Trainor

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Craig Higson

      Hi Craig - regarding the bats current IUCN status of "Critically endangered (possibly extinct)". Firstly, thanks to the authors we now know that this bat is not extinct - its status can be reviewed and updated based on the important re-discovery of a single animal.

      Given the complete absence of records [absence of any evidence of its continued existence] since 1890 (120 odd yrs), the IUCN status of Critically endangered was an informed guess - presumably considering the relative paucity of survey…

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    3. Luke Leung

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Craig Higson

      Hi Craig,

      The original specimens were collected in 1890 and we were not sure if the DNA would still be OK for sequencing. DNA deteriorates over time and some preservatives like formaldehyde (formalin) would damage DNA.

      We did not know if we had a new species or not in the field. So a voucher specimen is needed for the taxonomic description of any new species.

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  3. Phillip Chalmers

    Doctor at Private and Hospital medicine

    What a relief!
    We now have a killed one in a museum.

    I don't know how the quality of life on earth for human beings could have survived without this species with which to share the planet.

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    1. Luke Leung

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Phillip Chalmers

      You may not notice any change in quality of life for human beings with or without this or other species but the quality of life on earth is dependent on all plant and animal species.

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  4. Trisha Brazda

    logged in via Facebook

    So this rare "thought to be lost" microbat is re-discovered only to be killed by the people studying it? Really?

    Have you folks ever heard of DNA & blood samples and photographs for god's sake?

    Stupidity and irresponsible actions.

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    1. Luke Leung

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Trisha Brazda

      As I said before, the original specimens were collected in 1890 and the DNA would not be good for sequencing. DNA deteriorates over time and some preservatives like formaldehyde (formalin) would damage DNA. We will use DNA where we can.

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    2. Colin Trainor

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Trisha Brazda

      This is a hot topic at the moment, with a recent article in "Science" and replies. I don't think stupidity comes into, there are valid reasons for collecting, and valid reasons why collecting may not be justified in some instances.

      The orig article is here "Avoiding (Re)extinction", but I could'nt find full text:
      http://www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6181/260.figures-only

      Some of the replies are here:

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140522141315.htm

      pdf here: https://www.academia.edu/7128671/Specimen_collection_An_essential_tool

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    3. Luke Leung

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Colin Trainor

      Colin,

      Thank you for the support. We were aiming to give the readers of The Conversation some exciting news with my students rediscovering a species that was thought to be extinct for 120 years.

      I never thought people were so upset with collecting a specimen for the rediscovery of this species. I think there is a general misconception that we can use DNA to confirm species identification and so there is no need to collect specimens.

      My students are passionate about conserving biodiversity, particularly…

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    4. Julie Broken-Brow

      PhD Candidate in Microbat Ecology at University of Queensland

      In reply to Trisha Brazda

      Hi Trisha,

      We took long and careful thought before we decided to voucher the specimen in PNG. There is certainly arguments for and against and I fully acknowledge this. However in this case, I stick by our decision. As Dr Leung mentioned, DNA is not the 'magic solution' for every situation. Because the previous specimens were so old (and preserved in formaldehyde) it is almost certain that DNA analysis would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.

      Photos were not enough because at the time…

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    5. Trisha Brazda

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Luke Leung

      You can rationalise your actions any way you want but it is still ridiculous to kill an animal so you can be certain if it is critically endangered or extinct.

      You are all so wrapped up in your science you are completely unaware how ludicrous your reasoning sounds.

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    6. Maddy Jones

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Trisha Brazda

      Trisha, yours is an extreme position. It is important to be able to identify the species.

      We might hate it but common species get killed because governments won't protect them. Rare or threatened species are much easier to pressure governments in to saving.

      In a perfect world all animals would be saved from habitat destruction. Until that time, individual animals may be sacrificed to save other members of their species.

      No body sensible likes it. But when we accept that is the way the game is played. We can and should work to change the way the game is played. But in the mean time, this is how we protect what remains of the rest of the world.

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    7. Luke Leung

      Senior Lecturer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Trisha Brazda

      If the benefit of collecting a specimen is simply to determine if it is critically endangered or extinct, that can be considered as ridiculous.

      However, the benefit is more than that. If the species is shown to be critically endangered, not extinct, then this species mining, logging and other economic activities will need to address the conservation of this species.

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  5. Jill Sampson

    visual artist

    What a beautiful creature! I look forward to hearing whether this microbat lives a relatively solo life or in colonies. Where it roosts and how it interconnects in its environment (in subsequent research). Is it possible to access the library of echolocation calls? Exciting research in the field. No doubt not an easy task but one to be proud of and as you say to use for the development of policy for proposed future land use in this area.

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    1. Catherine Hughes

      Research Assistant at University of Queensland

      In reply to Jill Sampson

      Hi Jill,

      It is! They are all amazing and very cute. Now that we know the species is still out there, it'll be great to get more surveys in that area to catch more so we can determine the species ecology. It was a pretty lucky catch, and a great opportunity! As for the library of echolocation calls, are you referring to the calls collected during this project?

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    2. Karen Metcalfe

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Catherine Hughes

      Fly little bats fly as fast as you can Catherine is STILL coming after you. Save yourselves she's taking more SPECIMENS and you know what that means.

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    3. Jill Sampson

      visual artist

      In reply to Catherine Hughes

      Hi Catherine,
      I was referring to these calls you refer to in the article, but thinking about it I would probably be more interested in echo-location calls for Australian microbats. Are they audible or do they need magnifying for the human ear to hear? Where I grew up we had a bent wing bat colony that would use a cave in what was then a forestry lease that bordered on the farm. They were seasonal residents. I can't remember whether I could hear them or not, but I remember their wings beating past my body and the smell comign from the cave of course! I am currently living back at that farm and on summer evenings I could see a microbat hunting around the same tree each twilight. I wont tell you all my encounters with microbats as there are others. But I do find them fascinating and will be looking to learn more about them in the future.

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    4. Julie Broken-Brow

      PhD Candidate in Microbat Ecology at University of Queensland

      In reply to Jill Sampson

      Hi Jill,

      Most microbats (Australian and otherwise) are completely inaudible to the human ear (they have a frequency ranging between 20kHz and 200kHz). In saying this, when most people are young and have not damaged their hearing they are able to hear a couple of Australian species including Tadarida australis (white-striped freetail bat) and sometimes Saccolaimus flaviventris (yellow-bellied sheathtail bat). These species are both common in urban landscapes along the east coast of Australia. Their…

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    5. Maddy Jones

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Julie Broken-Brow

      That is, hunting calls are inaudible.

      Most microbats have social calls and other vocalizations that are audible.

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  6. Grace Nugi

    Research Intern, WCS

    Congratulations on the discovery. If it was once deemed extinct and now it is alive, then there should be some more of it still alive. I do agree with Collin and Luke that in PNG, most biodiversity are threatened by habitat loss and with this find, we can preserve much of the area it is found in.

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    1. Catherine Hughes

      Research Assistant at University of Queensland

      In reply to Grace Nugi

      Hey Wantok!

      Thanks. We caught this microbat in a lowlands forest, and as you would know most of the lowland forests of PNG are under heavy threat from logging and conversion to palm oil plantations, and other agricultural purposes. What work are you doing atm with WCS in PNG?

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  7. Gary Featonby

    Park Ranger

    In my role as a land manager I come across many "researchers" who collect specimens just for the sake of it.
    I've worked with Julie for 2 seasons now on Kutini-Payamu National Park and know that she is not one of these sorts of researchers.
    Julie wouldn't have taken that specimen without serious contemplation.
    Without confirmation of rare ,threatened or "extinct" species you will not get governments or corporations to change their policies.
    It's sad for the individual bat but if it saves their colony or some of their habitat.......who are we to judge?
    So get off your high horses all you deriders, and get out here and help me spray weeds, kill feral animals and pick up debris off the beaches and do something real to save our wildlife.
    Now if I can just teach Julie how to cook a real slow cooked roast......lol

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  8. Karen Metcalfe

    logged in via Facebook

    EXTREAMELY RARE AND ENDANGERED BAT!!!!!!!!!. So cute in the pictures and so KILLED to make sure the species survives. Ha aha ahahahaha.

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    1. Karen Metcalfe

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Karen Metcalfe

      Now there is probably 300 scientists out there all getting their own SAMPLES(killed) for their own reference.

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    2. Maddy Jones

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Karen Metcalfe

      Karen - do you have any evidence for your statement?

      If you read the article you will see that the voucher sample is held museum in PNG for any one who has reason to access.

      Additionally, the area is remote and generally undersampled.

      Finally, few scientists are blessed with budgets that allow them to travel to PNG on spec. This kind of work is long planned because of the practical and financial difficulties associated with working in a regional area.

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    3. Julie Broken-Brow

      PhD Candidate in Microbat Ecology at University of Queensland

      In reply to Karen Metcalfe

      Hi Karen,

      Now that one specimen has been taken, there is no longer a need for any further specimens to be taken - because we have physically proven it's presence, the species and it's habitat will be protected. I'm not sure if you realise exactly how remote this area is in Papua New Guinea. I doubt even 50 scientists would visit the entire country in one year. We have no further plans to voucher any more of this species and I know of no other scientist who plans to either.

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  9. Peter Williams

    Retired and still kicking

    I congratulate Catherine Hughes on her "ethical euthanasia" of perhaps one of the last survivors of a species. She should feel proud and align herself with those that kept the last thylacine in the Hobart Zoo. If we don't find another "big-eared bat" in another 120 years we can thank Ms Hughes and look to her Honours project and praise her PhD.

    Too help destroy an endangered species for your own personal academic advancement is simply beneath contempt. I look forward to the censorship of you and your colleagues.

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    1. Maddy Jones

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Williams

      Peter, if a species is down to a few members only, killing one of those animals will not have any impact on the survival of the species.

      On the other hand, knowing the species is there because of a voucher specimen, can act to save all the remaining animals.

      This is how things actually work. It's not how we might like it to work but it's practical conservation now. .

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    2. Peter Williams

      Retired and still kicking

      In reply to Luke Leung

      Mr Leung,

      Your sensitivity meter seems to be set on high. Do you disagree that it was inappropriate to "euthanise" a potential last representative of the species for a mere PhD?

      Or do you rather wish to merely shut down discussion on an important topic. I mean it's after 10 o'clock at night where I am, and you responded in a few minutes - suggesting your sensitivity to any allegations.

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    3. Peter Williams

      Retired and still kicking

      In reply to Maddy Jones

      Sorry Maddy,

      Calling someone a troll no longer works, perhaps put up a little bit of evidence as to how and why I'm what you call a troll.

      Trying to shut down discussion with ad hominem rarely works nowadays. But keep on trying.

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    4. Maddy Jones

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Williams

      Read the whole thread.

      You have not said anything other people have not said already. These concerns have already been addressed.

      If you don't accept those explanations it's because you have an idealogical objection to the explanation rather than a logical one.

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    5. Peter Williams

      Retired and still kicking

      In reply to Maddy Jones

      So we can't kill greyhounds because they're not fast enough (from your comments from 12 months ago) but a PhD can kill possibly the last of a species for her Honours project. Right, I get it! And you claim I have an idealogical problem!

      Killing the bat for a mere PhD shows that this person and her Senior Lecturer are unfit to hold their positions.

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    6. Maddy Jones

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Williams

      Peter, you have hit the line between welfare and conservation. These two things conflict at times in an individual animal. When conservation is done right, it supports the welfare of the remaining members of the species.

      For a greyhound, survival after racing (or better still not racing at all) is a welfare matter. There are no shortage of greyhounds in the world.

      For conservation, the killing of a single female in winter when she will not be feeding pups to prove the existence of the survival…

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    7. Karen Metcalfe

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Peter Williams

      YES YES YES Peter . I question how out of date this 'vouchering' (sanitised words) is. Don't these scientists realise how tough the animals have it to survive at all and to help them out she snuffs out another one. Out of touch and self absorbed. I stand by my comments that there's lots more V.I.P. scientists coming along to ethically euthanize there own 'specimens' for the good of the species????.

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    8. Peter Williams

      Retired and still kicking

      In reply to Maddy Jones

      So, it's OK to kill the last (potentially) surviving female of a species to prove the existence of the species (and justify a PhD). Yeah, go for it. You've served the the welfare of the remaining animals and destroyed the species. Pretty hard to argue with such an illogical argument.

      With a small population, doesn't the removal of one member drastically reduce the genetic diversity needed for survival? Or is a PhD more important?

      My apologies for "Too" instead of "To". You might like to correct your "beleive" to "believe" - we all make mistakes.

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