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Flock of Undiscovered Songbirds Discovered Across Remote Islands

Since 1999, only an average of around five or six new bird species have been discovered across the planet each year. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the discovery of ten previously unseen songbird species has been met with a great deal of interest by ornithology and biodiversity experts the world over.

The discovery, detailed in the Jan. 10 issue of Science magazine, reveals an intriguing look at avian biodiversity. Made across several Southeast Asian islands near Sulawesi in the Wallacea region – Peleng, Taliabu and the Togian group – the discovery lists five new species alongside five new subspecies, based on the physical features, DNA and song variations of the birds. Some of these differences are visually prominent – for example, the yellow-bellied Togian jungle-flycatcher (Cyornis omissus omississimus) features a crown of iridescent blue feathers to set it apart from its cousins.

It had long been suspected that islands of Taliabu, Peleng and the Togian group may be home to a number of undiscovered bird species. The islands in question are separated from Sulawesi, the nearest landmass, by deep ocean waters; this has restricted a number of animals for intermingling throughout the region, as well as limiting access from predators. In fact, a number of tropical forest birds in the area rarely explore outside of safe, shady forest cover, meaning they are relatively undisturbed by other species.

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In recent years, the majority of new bird species have been found in South America, namely Peru and Brazil. The discovery of new species in Indonesia isn’t a total surprise though, as some researchers in the 1990s did identify what they believed to be new songbird species in the region, but neglected to collect specimens or formally describe any findings. However the fact that animals have been able to exist and survive there for so long without being documented is somewhat surprising – especially considering the number of species found.

The birds are not living without risk though – logging and severe forest fires have been threatening their habitats in recent years, and some predictions suggest the newly discovered species may not survive many more years. These elements are putting a great deal of pressure on biodiversity across the planet, and while conservation efforts are working hard to ensure the survival of such species, little can be done for those that have yet to be discovered.

So what does this discovery mean for avian biodiversity across the world as a whole? Considering North America alone has seen numbers of birds decline by 29% since 1970, the survival of these species is crucial. In the U.S., these numbers are largely due to the loss of natural habitat caused by both climate change and agricultural development, as birds are struggling to survive without the correct environment available, while seabirds are also facing the threat of marine heat waves. Living so remotely, the newly discovered songbirds have managed to largely avoid some of these factors – however this does not mean they aren’t at risk from environmental threats.

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The general consensus between researchers is that Earth is currently undergoing a sixth mass extinction, meaning for the sixth time in the life of the planet global fauna is experiencing a catastrophic collapse in numbers. The United Nations predicts up to one million species could face extinction, and this includes a large number of birds. Conservation groups are working hard to ensure that animals are protected from threats, but as we have seen with the recent wildfires in Australia, this is not always possible. Taliabu and Peleng’s own forest fires have proved that the birds are at risk, and the situation is not getting any better.

Frank Rheindt, associate professor of biological sciences at NUS and one of the researchers involved in the discovery, has been keen to encourage the importance of increased protective efforts, stating that “while most of the avifauna we described seems to tolerate some form of habitat degradation and is readily detected in secondary forest and edge, some species or subspecies are doubtless threatened by the immense levels of habitat loss on these islands. As such, urgent, long-lasting conservation action is needed for some of the new forms to survive longer than a couple of decades beyond their date of description.”

On the whole, the revelation is an overwhelmingly positive one – such a wealth of species points to positive levels of biodiversity in the region. Rheindt and his team are optimistic that the methods used in this discovery could be effectively applied in other regions and for other forms of wildlife in the future. “Going forward, the use of earth-history and bathymetric information could also be applied to other terrestrial organisms and regions beyond the Indonesian Archipelago to identify promising islands that potentially harbour new taxa to be uncovered,” stated Rheindt.