Was the black francolin (Francolinus francolinus) once occurring in the western Mediterranean a native or an introduced species? This was the hotly debated question recently addressed through a DNA-based study by the team headed by Dr. Filippo Barbanera, researcher at the Unit of Zoology-Anthropology of the University of Pisa, and including laboratory technician Dr. Monica Guerrini and PhD student Giovanni Forcina. Considered a valuable gamebird since the Classic Age, the black francolin has long been raising major interest due to not only the delicate taste, but also the curative and even aphrodisiac properties attributed to its meat. The Greek dramatist Aristophanes, the Roman epigrammatist Martial, the lyric poet Horace, the natural philosopher Pliny the Elder: these are just some of the eminent authors who mentioned the black francolin in classic literature and poetry. Later on, in the Middle Age and the Renaissance, a number of strict hunting bans restricted its harvesting to a privileged few, as nicely testified by the 17th-century fresco "The Hunters' Gathering" exposed at the Palatine Gallery in Florence. In keeping with the Islamic medical tradition, the digestibility of black francolin meat warranted its inclusion among the highly recommended foods to pilgrims traveling to Mecca.
Presently distributed from Cyprus and Turkey across the Middle East and central Asia to the Indian subcontinent, the black francolin went extinct in Spain, Greece and Italy mainly because of habitat fragmentation and overhunting during the 19th century. This research, started in 2007 thanks to a well-established collaboration with the Cypriot Game Fund Service (Ministry of Interior, Cyprus), relied on a range-wide, comprehensive sampling of both modern and historical samples (some dating back to the beginning of the 19th century) hosted in ornithological collections worldwide. Among these, the Natural History Museum "La Specola" of Florence allowed sampling the very last black francolins from Italy shot near Gela in Sicily. Remarkably, the use of museum specimens enabled not only to finally shed light on the genetic affinity of the enigmatic populations formerly present in the western Mediterranean, but also to get around the problems of remoteness and socio-political unrest peculiar to most of the current distribution range of this species. The results evidenced the exotic status of the black francolin in the area of interest and allowed tracking the human-mediated dispersal via several trade routes even from distant locales in southern Asia.
This study, recently published (17th March 2015) in the eminent international journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, was integrated with a thorough literature search which allowed exploring the role played by the Crusaders and the Catalan-Aragonese in importing such bird from Cyprus to Sicily first, and from the latter to Spain later. Interestingly, molecular data confirmed the introduction of the species from Sicily to Tuscany by Lorenzo the Magnificient who managed to have some francolins as ornamental birds in his model farm of Poggio a Caiano near Florence. Fundamental archaeozoological and anthropological setting was especially provided by coauthors Prof. Melinda Zeder (Smithsonian Institution, USA) and Prof. Aleem Ahmed Khan (Bahauddin Zakariya University, Pakistan). This work testifies the potential of archival research collections in studies addressing topics such as biodiversity assessment, tracking of wildlife translocations and solving archaeozoological problems. Fifteen museums in Europe and the US, and the Natural History Museum of London in particular, have provided their own material. Likewise, it evidences the importance of spatio-temporal DNA studies to better understand the human impact in shaping overall biodiversity across the globe in the context of present-day process of biotic homogenization.