Science

Century species find on remote islands

From brightly colored to rather inconspicuous: Researchers on remote Indonesian islands discovered five new bird species and five subspecies within a few weeks during an expedition. This is all the more surprising given that birds are considered to be quite well researched.

In the past decades, fewer than six new species have been described on average per year. The study not only shows how many unknown bird species there could still be, but also how endangered they are at times: two of the three islands have recently lost an extremely large amount of forest, so the habitat of some species has been threatened, writes the team around Frank Rheindt from the University of Singapore in the journal “Science”.

Most of the global biodiversity is unknown. But birds are the most researched animal group because of their striking way of life. Currently there are 11 000 known bird species, writes the team around Rheindt. Most of the new species have been found in South America in recent years. The team now visited the end of 2013 for six weeks the islands of Peleng, Taliabu and Batudaka, which are located east of Sulawesi.

Many other unknown species suspected

The team found three previously unknown species and three subspecies in the highlands of Taliabu, two further species and one subspecies in the Mountains of Peleng, a subspecies on Batudaka.

Taliabu Grasshopper-Warbler.

Taliabu Grasshopper-Warbler. Photo: James Eaton / Birdtour Asia

“The description of so many bird species in such a geographically small area is a rarity,” the researchers explain. There may also be many unknown bird species in other little-explored areas. With the regional topography, the scientists explain that they found what they were looking for on these three islands. The sea is so deep that the islands in the past millions of years, when the sea level during the ice ages by up to 120 meters fell, remained isolated. Therefore, there are many endemic species there – in contrast to other islands, which were connected to Sulawesi time and time again by land bridges. “Taliabu and Peleng are perhaps the last candidates in the Indonesian archipelago that are both deep-sea surrounded and ornithologically under-explored,” they write.

A macabre race between discovery and eradication

However, a lot of forest has been destroyed on these islands. Most of the described species, which mainly span from coarse 15 to 22 centimeters, would probably get along with the renewable secondary forest, the team emphasizes. But at least for one species on Taliabu, Locustella portenta, is the Habitat shrunk to a few square kilometers.

Togian Jungle-Flycatcher

Togian Jungle-Flycatcher Photo: James Eaton / Birdtour Asia

In a “Science” commentary Jonathan Kennedy from the University of Sheffield and Jon Fjeldså from the University of Copenhagen write that the finds represent the highest number of new species discovered in a limited area for more than 100 years. That shows how important it is to record biodiversity – especially in view of the current one, quickly progressive extinction. “Large parts of the world's biodiversity are at considerable risk of disappearing before they are known to science.”

(Walter Willems, dpa)

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