So you want to discover (and protect) new bird species? Here’s how to get it done.

Islands in the Wallacea region off of Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Photo credit: Btv70/Wikimedia Commons)
Islands in the Wallacea region off of Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Photo credit: Btv70/Wikimedia Commons)

The recent discovery of a “lost world” in the Wallacea region of Indonesia has stunned scientists and conservationists. 

In the dense mountain rain forests of three remote Indonesian islands, five unknown bird species — and as many subspecies — have remained hidden until now. 

The Peleng Fantail, Taliabu Grasshopper-Warbler, and other newly described birds were introduced to the world this month, more than 70 years after an influential scientist predicted that almost no new bird species were likely to be found anywhere on the planet. 

Age of discovery

“[T]he period of new discoveries is practically at its end. I doubt that in the entire world even as many as 100 new species [of birds] remain to be discovered,” opined the great ornithologist Ernst Mayr in 1946.

And this was largely true until the 1970s, when Mayr’s prediction was overturned. 

That’s when bird experts at Louisiana State University, venturing into poorly known and isolated mountain ranges in Peru, began to turn up new forms of birds. 

Since then, teams from universities across the world have followed up on clues from others to survey and collect in the most remote and isolated places on Earth. 

The results have provided around 170 new species, swelling the global total to almost 11,000.

How do they do it?

Lost worlds

The idea is to comb through the routes of historic bird collectors to find the places they neglected. Particularly rich areas are mountaintops and islands isolated from their surroundings throughout the Pleistocene — Earth’s most recent period of ice ages and glaciation. 

In Indonesia, researchers looked for islands surrounded by water deep enough that it hadn’t been part of a land bridge during times that sea levels were much lower. 

Populations of forest birds, they surmised, were likely to have remained genetically isolated on these islands. 

The opposite occurred on islands in shallower seas, where birds could have moved freely when these were connected by land. 

It works that way on mountaintops, too. 

At those altitudes, unique forms of birds are adapted to special ecosystems such as cloud forests. 

As a result, they become genetically isolated, living solely in “sky islands” surrounded by “seas” of lower-elevation habitat that they simply will not enter.

The strategy certainly paid off for the Indonesian team, whose find was the biggest in the ornithological world in more than a century.

And the search goes on. 

Endangered habitat — and species

But the authors of the Science study have a broader message to those passionate about discovery. 

Islands with a few new birds are also likely to have many new types of smaller and less mobile creatures. 

And these undiscovered life forms face apocalyptic threats in the form of logging and fire. 

The lower forests of Taliabu and Peleng islands, for example, have already been cut down. 

And the higher hills, where the new species reside, are quickly succumbing to chainsaws and fires. 

These fires in particular may be getting worse because of climate change. 

Researchers say it’s urgent to work with local and traditional communities that own the habitat where the birds (and who knows how many other undetected species) still live — for now.

Sources: Audubon, Science (article plus commentary)

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