One bird – two names. Bitter feud in the Colombian ornithology/bird conservation scene.

Fenwick's - Urrao - Antpitta Grallaria fenwickorum. Photo: ProAves

by Gunnar on March 6, 2011 · 17 comments

in Birding Neotropics

Ornithology Soap Opera

Colombia’s ornithology is living a soap opera of “Dallas” proportions of freud, deciept and back-stabbing. It would make a good TV series. I am just wondering which bad guy Larry Hagman was to play.  On one side Colombia’s leading bird conservation organization ProAves – on the other side the creme of Colombian Ornithologist. The cleft is huge and it has not become narrower by recent publications.

In short step by step.

  • Proaves mounts an expedition to the Paramo del Sol area in 2004 to search for a Hummingbird, the Dusky Starfrontlet Coeligena orina (Critically Endangered CR)  that has been lost 50 years – and then known only form one museum specimen. They find it not uncommon here and collect 1 specimen.  Another expedition visit the area 2 weeks later and collected 3 specimens. Together the two research teams publish a paper on the finding. Pdf here.  (This paragraph – slightly updated on Mar 15.)
  • ProAves creates a reserve with funding from the Fenwick family and lets Carantón become manager and head researcher.
  • Carantón finds a dead antpitta in the mistnet -which seems to be a new species to science.
  • He nets another one and collects it (kill, sacrifice)
  • However, there are no collecting permits issued.
  • Furthermore, Carantón does not mention the birds in his monthly reports to his employer ProAves
  • Eventually ProAves finds out about it and are furious.  As employer they have the legal right to the discovery
  • Plans for publishing a scientific paper starts, but ProAves wants to name the bird after George Fenwick and his family. George Fenwick is president of ABC, the US conservation organization that supports the work of ProAves.
  • The Colombian ornithologists dislike Fenwick, because he ABC has openly critizised scientific collecting of threatened species.
  • Carantón submits a paper to Condor – but it is rejected because collecting permits are missing.
  • ProAves tries to reconcile with Carantón but there is no agreement because ProAves insists on the Fenwick name and whom are to be co-authors of the paper.
  • Carantón’s paper was just about to be published, when a paper describing Fenwick’s Antpitta based on a couple of feathers and a photo appears in ProAves own magazine Conservación Colombiana.
  • A month later Carantóns paper is being published in Ornitologia Colombiana naming the species Urrao Antpitta Grallaria urraoensis
  • The same bird now has two names.
The key issues are:
  • Caranton collected the birds without permit and with-held the information to his employer
  • Caranton tried to publish in Condor without the concent of ProAves
  • ProAves had a sweet revenge (bitter-sweet maybe) when they scooped Caranton and hasten the publication of Grallaria fenwickorum in their own on-line magazine- and by this gaining priority to the name.

All this leads to some obvious questions.  Would it not have been better for ProAves if they had:
1. Abstained to publish? Surely, they could have given the Fenwick name to another species – for instance that new undescribed Megascops in Santa Marta.  Carantón would have to face the legal consequences of his actions.
2. Accepted that Caranton chose any name he pleased and go ahead and publish together?

On the other hand when it comes to Carantón:
Why all this trouble? Would it not have been better to work with ABC, knowing that a specimen was obtained without proper permits?

Yesterday an article was in Science published called “Feathers Are Flying Over Colombian Bird Name Flap”, although the text is not available on-line on Science web-page without a subscription, it was shared on the list-server NEOORN as well as on BirdForum yesterday. Therefor, I have not scruples of re-posting the whole article here  in quotes. It is a good read.

Today, ProAves published an editorial that responds to an article by renowned ornithologists Cadena and Stiles, who defended Caranton’s moral right to name and to describe the new species. There is a link to this editorial at the bottom.

Regalado 2011. News & Analysis: Ornithology: Feathers are flying over Colombian bird name flap. Science 331: 1123-1124.

“Last May, at the Washington, D.C., home of the Colombian ambassador, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) and its partner in Colombia, Fundación ProAves, announced the discovery of a new species of Neotropical bird. ABC touted the feat as “remarkable” for being one of the first times a new species had been scientifically described from an individual captured, measured, photographed, and then released. For George Fenwick, head of ABC, it was a proud moment: The bird, Fenwick’s antpitta (Grallaria fenwickorum), was named in honor of his family.

The problem with the announcement was that it made no mention of the bird’s actual discoverer, a 28-year-old former employee of ProAves named Diego Carantón, and the two preserved specimens he had already collected. How Carantón, his specimens, and the name he had chosen – Grallaria urraoensis – came to be omitted from the taxonomic record is generating bitter debate between Colombia’s leading university ornithologists and ProAves, the country’s best-known private conservation organization, over scientific standards and credit for new discoveries.

ProAves’s leadership, in a lengthy statement expected to be released this week, says Carantón violated his employment contract by secretly collecting specimens, so the foundation was justified in rushing out a paper last May to seize nomenclatural priority – accorded to whoever publishes first – and name the bird after Fenwick.

ProAves agrees that Carantón identified the new species. In 2008, while Carantón managed ProAves’s Colibrí del Sol reserve in the Western Andes, he found a wet, unrecognizable bird dead in a capture net. He could not find the bird in any museum collections and eventually captured, and killed, a second bird. “I knew ProAves doesn’t like collecting, but I did it. I wanted to know what the bird was,” Carantón says.

Carantón also did not immediately tell ProAves about the unfolding discovery, and foundation officials were furious to learn not only that there were two specimens already in a drawer at Bogotá’s Institute of Natural Sciences but also that Carantón had involved other researchers, including Colombia’s leading avian DNA expert, Daniel Cadena of the University of Los Andes, in the project. “It was a cross, a double-cross, a triple-cross for ProAves,” says David Caro, ProAves’s outgoing executive director.

Initially, Carantón was given permission to publish a description of the new species on the condition that he use the name G. fenwickorum. But negotiations became embittered as ProAves sought final say over the paper and the list of authors. “All the intellectual property of the discovery belongs to ProAves, and we have every right to authorize a publication or not, considering the bird was discovered on our reserve,” read one e-mail that Sara Lara, currently director of international affairs for ABC, sent to scientists and ProAves staff.

To make matters worse, the name G. fenwickorum didn’t sit well with the scientists. In 2008, Fenwick had penned an editorial sharply critical of Colombian museum collectors, accusing them of gratuitously killing endangered bird species. Cadena later resigned from the project, explaining in an e-mail, “I definitely don’t want to be part of a homage to Fenwick.”

When Carantón eventually decided to publish the discovery independently – and name the bird G. urraoensis, after the local municipality of Urrao – ProAves countered by hosting a hastily arranged field expedition. In May 2010, two junior field guides scooped Carantón, publishing a description of G. fenwickorum in ProAves’s in-house magazine, Conservación Colombiana, grabbing the right to name the bird. “It came down to the name,” says Caro. “We needed the name to raise more funds.”

The paper held another dart for the academics who had sided with Carantón. Given Fenwick’s opposition to killing rare birds for science, ProAves had collected only a few feathers and photographs – materials that in a pinch can be accepted as the museum holotype, or reference specimen. However, many collection curators believe a full specimen is needed to create an accurate record.

For F. Gary Stiles, curator of the bird collection at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá, the attempt to designate the feathers and photographs as the holotype is “scientifically irresponsible.”

ProAves’s publication also caused dissent inside the foundation’s leadership. “I thought it was just too much to steal a young man’s discovery of a lifetime that way,” says ornithologist Niels Krabbe of the University of Copenhagen, one of two ProAves board members to resign in protest.

Two months later, a description by Carantón and a co-author appeared, this time in the journal of the Colombian Association of Ornithology. They called the bird G. urraoensis. In a lengthy editorial, Cadena and Stiles said ProAves had probably won naming priority but charged “grave faults” in the organization’s scientific ethics.

Carantón’s defenders argue that Carantón has a “moral right” to his discovery, despite any missteps. They call the case the latest in a series of hard-boiled moves by ProAves aimed at gratifying British and American donors and generating publicity at the expense of Colombian researchers. “They have created a lot of tension in the country,” says ornithologist Luis Germán Naranjo, who is conservation director for the World Wide Fund for Nature in Colombia.

There is little question that ProAves has been successful in protecting birds. Since its founding in 2001, the organization has bought 22,000 hectares of Andean habitat, creating 18 reserves for 91 threatened species. That land includes some of the only known habitat of the Colorful Puffleg, a hummingbird, and ProAves is credited with a resurgence of the rare Yellow-eared Parrot.

Success has brought a list of over 100 mostly foreign donors, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and ABC. Paul Salaman, conservation director at World Land Trust in Washington, D.C., and an influential ProAves board member, says “the meteoric rise” of ProAves may have generated resentment. “It wants to get things done, and that upsets people,” says Salaman.

Some researchers still hope G. urraoensis could win out before international bodies that rule on species names. However, Ellinor Michel, executive secretary of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature in London, says it will be difficult to unseat G. fenwickorum. “If the publication by ProAves [was] legitimate, then the name they gave will stand,” she says.”

Useful links:

The links are ordered in chronological order. When reading these links one notice that there was tension between ProAves and the Colombian ornithologists prior to these sad events. People on both sides are outraged. Who is right and who is wrong? Both?

Question now is – what shall we call this thing? Maybe best to make a fusion – Urrao Antpitta Grallaria fenwickorum.

UPDATE 1 March 6: The regional governmental environmental authority – CORPOURABÁ levy a fine of  US$10.600 on Carantón and ProAves for illegal collecting. ProAves pays the fine fully.

UPDATE 2 March 6: In a final response by Daniel Cadena in Spanish, he indicates that the name fenwickorum was NOT the principle reason for the breakdown in the negitiations of the parties.  In an early phase Cadena says he left negotiations because differences in whom to include or exclude in getting the paper together. He also says  the negotiations between Carantón and ProAves broke down because Caranton would not have full control of the content.  Here is a Google translated version of his reply.

UPDATE 3. March 6: It is well worth following the discussion from a birders standpoint on BirdForum.

UPDATE 4. March 7: In a message from Gavin Shire, public relations of ABC, he says ” the editorial wasn’t by George Fenwick, it was an ABC editorial, and it didn’t openly criticize collecting, it criticized collecting of endangered species and birds whose populations have not yet been determined to be able to handle it. Some chose to see it (and ABC) as anti-collecting per se, but that is far from so.”

UPDATE 5. March 7: Comments to this post can’t be anonymous! Please provide constructive feedback. No point to put “mas leña al fuego”….(how do you say that in English?)

UPDATE 6. March 7. Daniel Cadena read Gavin Shire’s comment and promises this will be his very last comment on the issue (on NeoOrn today). “First, I find comments from Gavin Shire most remarkable. I honestly do not know who wrote the editorial piece on scientific collecting published by ABC. Because it was not signed, I always thought it was an institutional statement. However, I was recently told by Antonio Regalado, the journalist who wrote the piece for Science, that ABC said Fenwick was the one who wrote this. Regardless, it is remarkable that ABC personnel will focus on this minor detail (as ABC president Fenwick likely had some responsibility) and will obviate the fact that such editorial was full of misdirected accusations and outright fabrications.

Second, I saw the thread on BirdForum you (Gunnar) linked to. Crazy how people with no firsthand knowledge of all the story can distort the facts (e.g. someone said that the Caranton and Certuche paper was rushed to publication by itself online, ignoring it was part of a full issue of Ornitología Colombiana, which was not only published online but physically sent to several institutions via regular post). I realize it is a complex story, but people do not realize that making strong statements without full knowledge of facts can cause much harm…”

UPDATE 7. March 7: It is necessary to link to the said ABC editorial. Here is the editorial from June 2007 titled “Should the last Ivory-bill be collected” – scroll down until you find it.

UPDATE 8. March 7. From a birders point of view, this article may sound quite reasonable. However, the scientist involved in the particular cases pointed out were not happy. In their opinon, as indicated by Cadena above, there were a lot of statements that were abusive and fabricated lies. Thus Remsen and Stiles contested in this reply. According to Remsen they never got a reply from ABC on their observations. The plot thickens. There was a extremely poor relation between ProAves/ABC and the institutional ornitological community in Colombia since at least 3 years prior to the publication of the new Antpitta.

Update 9. March 8. Floyd Hayes summery on NeoOrn of 10 commandments to come to agreement is very good. I quote it fully here:

“Now that I have spent several hours thoroughly reading both sides of this sad but fascinating fiasco, which somehow managed to escape my attention until a few days ago, I would like to summarize my personal conclusions:

1. Everybody must respect the existing laws of the land within a government’s jurisdiction, including researchers who must obtain a collecting permit before collecting any specimen, even an undescribed species.

2. Employees must respect the contractual obligations of their employer; if they disagree, they should resign and find employment elsewhere (which may be difficult, given the limited availability of options for employment).

3. Organizations must not impose unreasonable contractual obligations on their employees, such as demanding ownership of intellectual property rights and prior approval before publishing scientific results of a non-commercial nature in a scientific journal, otherwise employees will become disgruntled and the organization will lose the respect of its supporters. Birds must not be equated with pharmaceuticals.

4. Conservation organizations and scientists, including scientists who collect specimens, must consider each other as allies in the conservation of biodiversity, and respect differences in philosophical approaches to conservation.

5. Public statements must be signed if they are not intended to reflect the philosophy of an organization.

6. The authors of public statements must strive to be as accurate as possible.

7. When one or more persons are offended by one or more inaccuracies in a public statement, the record must be set straight and an apology issued.

8. The discoverer of a new species has a moral right to describe and name it, or to approve of someone else describing and naming it. Nobody can usurp that moral right.

9. Money and fame must not be motives for claiming credit for somebody else’s scientific discovery without consent of the discoverer.

10. We must all strive to get along, even if we must agree to disagree.

I apologize if anybody is offended by anything I have written here.”

Update 10. Towards a better future understanding.

I notice that the key figures are striving to improve communications in the future.  Here are final words from National Network of Colombian Ornithologists (RNOA for its acronym in Spanish) and Thomas Donegan of ProvAves. Seemingly, there is a will to go forward.

RNOA demands the respect deserved by the Colombian ornithological community and requests that, in the future, its opinion be taken into account before making accusations that put into question the integrity of any of its members. We sincerely hope that future conservation actions undertaken by Fundación ProAves, which we acknowledge and appreciate, will be developed according to ethical principles and through an open dialogue with Colombian Ornithologists.

Thomas Donegan of ProAves – personal comment.

What is done is done. We should now all draw a line under this and try to get on with life. As a minimum, I would call for dispassionate objectivity, respect and professionalism in discussions on this forum and elsewhere (again, that applies to all sides).
This Grallaria episode is a mess, but ProAves is a great organisation doing fantastic conservation work. People should be kinder to it and be proud of the great work it has achieved.

Update 11. March 29, 2011 Grallaria fenwickorum invalidated?

In a communication by Diego Lizcano, a professor at Universidad de Pamplona, it held forward that the storing and cataloging of the type (some feathers in an envolope) has been dealt with in way that could make the name Grallaria fenwickorum invalid. The message is summerized by Diego Calderon in the comments n madebelow and with a link to the original in Spanish. A propasal has been made to SACC to invalidate G. fenwickorum and recognize G. urraoensis. Still not an end to this story and the name? It shall be very interesting to follow SACC’s treatment. But in the end I wonder if it does not lie on ICZN to decide which name should prevail?

Top Photo:  Grallaria fenwickorum from the original ProAves press-release.

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