No one hoped to ever see the world’s largest woodpecker in flight again. The two-foot tall imperial woodpecker went extinct in the late 20th century, but a recently re-discovered 85-second bit of color footage from 1956 allows humans to see what the planet has lost.

“It is stunning to look back through time with this film and see the magnificent imperial woodpecker moving through its old-growth forest environment, said Martjan Lammertink, a researcher at Cornell University and lead author of a paper describing the video of the lost woodpecker, in a press release.

“And it is heartbreaking to know that both the bird and the forest are gone.”

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William Rhein shot the only known footage of the imperial woodpecker with a hand-held camera from the back of a mule while camping in Durango, Mexico in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, a 900 mile long chain that stretches south from the U.S. border.

The imperial woodpecker once lived in the old growth pine forests of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental mountains and the Transvolcanic mountains of central Mexico. But logging of the forests destroyed their habitats. The birds were also shot for food or sport and used in folk remedies.

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A similar fate befell the Imperial woodpeckers’ closest relative, the ivory-billed woodpecker, in the U.S. and Cuba. A few sightings of what was believed to be the ivory-billed woodpecker raised hopes that the bird had survived in Arkansas. But a 2005 Cornell survey of the area found no evidence of the woodpecker.

The research was published in the October issue of The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union.




Stuffed adult female Imperial Woodpecker, Campephilus imperialis. (Wikimedia Commons)

Imperial Woodpecker  male (below), female (above), chromolithograph, 1898, John Livzey Ridgway (Wikimedia Commons)