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New Bird Species Confirmed 15 Years After First Sighting

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An international team of scientists has confirmed the discovery of a new bird species more than 15 years after the elusive animal was first seen on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Researchers from Michigan State University, Princeton University and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences discovered the Sulawesi streaked flycatcher, Muscicapa sodhii. The bird is distinguished by its mottled throat and short wings and was found in the forested lowlands of Sulawesi where it had first been observed in 1997.

The researchers report in PLOS ONE that the new species is markedly different from other flycatchers in its plumage, body structure, song and genetics, proving that it is a new species. Because the bird has survived in a region heavily degraded by cacao plantations, the species is not currently at risk of extinction.

“The Sulawesi streaked flycatcher is similar to related Asian species in its song, producing whistles, chirps and trills, but is slightly more high-pitched and lacks the lower-pitched notes that other species make,” said Pam Rasmussen, MSU assistant professor of zoology and assistant curator of mammalogy and ornithology at the MSU Museum. “We were lucky to be able to make the first known recording of this bird singing.”

Rasmussen, the author of “Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide,” also runs the global bird sounds website AVoCet, where the bird’s song is archived.

Rasmussen and J.C. Berton Harris, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy, and their collaborators’ work finally allows this bird, which has awaited formal scientific description since 1997, to be included in scientific publications and conservation plans.

“Considering that 98 percent of the world’s birds have been described, finding a new species is quite rare,” Harris said. “And despite being a globally important avian hotspot, Sulawesi has largely gone unstudied by ornithologists.”

With funding from the National Geographic Society, Harris, Rasmussen, and other collaborators traveled to Central Sulawesi in 2011 and 2012 to continue the search for the mysterious animal. After weeks of camping, the researchers finally found the bird – in the place it was originally seen – in summer 2012, observing several of them.

A full examination of the bird’s measurements, genetics and plumage revealed that, compared with similar flycatchers, the bird has shorter wings, a more strongly hooked bill and a shorter tail. Its plumage also is distinct, as the bird has a plainer face and streaked throat. The new species’ DNA shows that it is only distantly related to the gray-streaked flycatcher, and it most closely resembles the Thailand population of the Asian brown flycatcher.

Rasmussen is quite familiar with the thorough process required to confirm the discovery of new birds. In 2012, Rasmussen was part of a team that discovered two owls in the Philippines residing in forests on sparsely populated islands.

While the new species does not require pristine rainforest to survive, it does appear to be dependent on tall forest trees spared by farmers.

“At this point, the species is not at risk for extinction,” Rasmussen said. “However, this could change if agriculture intensifies in this region.”

Additional researchers contributing to this study include Ding Li Yong from the Australian National University and Southeast Asian Biodiversity Society; Dewi Prawiradilaga from the Research Center for Biology-LIPI in Indonesia; Dadang Dwi Putra from the Celebes Bird Club in Indonesia; Philip Round from Mahidol University in Bangkok; and Frank Rheindt from the National University of Singapore.

– Layne Cameron , Pam Rasmussen via MSU Today

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