The announcement of the discovery of a new bird comes with a twist: It’s a white-eye, but its eye isn’t white. Still, what this new bird lacks in literal qualities it makes up for as one of the surprises that nature still has tucked away in little-explored corners of the world.
Ornithologists, including one from Michigan State University, describe for science a new species of bird from the Togian Islands of Indonesia – Zosterops somadikartai, or Togian white-eye, in the March edition of The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.
Its eye isn’t ringed in a band of white feathers like its cousins who flock in other remote tropical islands of Indonesia. Still, it has many features in common with the black-crowned white-eye Zosterops atrifrons of Sulawesi, which is clearly its closest relative, said MSU’s Pamela Rasmussen, an internationally known ornithologist specializing in Asian birds.
“What this discovery highlights is that in some parts of the world there are still virtually unexplored islands where few ornithologists have worked,” Rasmussen said. “The world still holds avian surprises for us.”
The Togian white-eye first was spotted by Mochaamad Indrawan, an Indonesian field biologist at the Depok Campus of the University of Indonesia, and Sunarto (some Indonesians use a single name), who is now working on a doctorate at Virginia Tech, 12 years ago during their first trip to the Togian Islands.
Those first sightings were fleeting, but Indrawan and Sunarto returned and made several more observations of these active little green birds, and obtained the type specimen upon which the species’ description is now founded. The type specimen was then sent on loan to Rasmussen at the MSU Museum, so she could make detailed comparisons between it and related species at museums such as Britain’s Natural History Museum, the American Museum in New York and the Smithsonian Institution.
The new bird is believed to be endangered. The white-eye has been seen only near the coasts of three small islands of the Togian Islands in central Sulawesi. Unlike most white-eye species, it is evidently quite uncommon even in its very limited range. Considering its limited numbers and distribution, it falls into the World Conservation Union category of endangered. This finding also establishes the Togian Islands as an endemic bird area.
“This finding shows that equal opportunities are beneficial for the development of science and in particular that international cooperation can boost capacities in addressing poorly known biology in the tropics,” Indrawan said. “This finding of the bird is only the beginning given the vast opportunities with Indonesian landscapes and seascapes of endemic flora and fauna.”
The species is named for Soekarja Somadikarta, Indonesia’s leading taxonomist and mentor to Indrawan. Somadikarta was recently appointed honorary president for International Ornithological Congress XXV.
Rasmussen noted that the Togian white-eye is distinctive not only in appearance, but its lilting song, which Indrawan recorded and Rasmussen committed to sonogram, sounds higher pitched and is less varied in pitch than its close relatives.
MSU expert IDs new bird species – Togian white-eye was discovered on Indonesian islands
Scientists discover perhaps a handful of new bird species in any given year.
In the course of her career as an ornithologist, Pamela Rasmussen has had a hand in discovering six.
The latest is the Togian white-eye, a small, greenish, almost certainly endangered bird found on three small islands in Indonesia.
The discovery of any new bird species is something significant, said Rasmussen, assistant curator of mammalogy and ornithology at the Michigan State University Museum and an internationally known expert in Asian birds.
“Birds are the best known class of organisms. We know probably 99.9 percent of the bird species,” she said, adding the discovery shows the world still has unexplored terrain, scientifically speaking.
In this instance, Rasmussen wasn’t the one who brought the bird out of the field.
Two Indonesian biologists, Mochamad Indrawan, of the University of Indonesia, and Sunarto (some Indonesians use only a single name), now a doctoral student at Virginia Tech, spotted it first in 1996 on a trip to the Togian Islands.
The two didn’t have permits to collect specimens at the time and would observe the active little creature over the course of years before obtaining one for study.
Rasmussen has a reputation as a researcher with an uncanny knack for detail, and it was her role to determine whether the bird was a separate species by comparing it with birds in the extensive specimen collections held at the Smithsonian Institution, the American Museum of Natural History, the Natural History Museum in London and Naturalis in the Netherlands.
And, while the Togian white-eye proved similar in many ways to the black-crowned white-eye, its closest relative, Rasmussen found differences enough.
The Togian white-eye, for example, doesn’t have white eyes. Its lilting song is different, its beak differently shaped. And, perhaps most notably, it lacks rings of white feathers around its eyes.
The researchers published their findings in this month’s edition of The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.
In some ways, finding a new species in a small and relatively isolated environment such as the Togian islands isn’t particularly surprising, Rasmussen said.
The initial populations on such islands tend to be small, she said, and, over the course of many generations, different environmental pressures – along with something called “genetic drift,” essentially chance genetic change not related to natural selection – cause them to transform in ways that relatives who inhabit different geographies don’t.
“If they do well, they’re going to survive and prosper, but they’re going to change over evolutionary time,” she said.
“That’s just the inevitable fact of the way that genes mutate.”
Joel Cracraft, the curator in charge of the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said there’s a popular perception that most bird species are widespread, that, like the American robin, they inhabit huge ranges.
“But, in fact, most birds, most organisms are very narrowly distributed,” he said. “They’re found only in small areas and nowhere else in the world. When you have a situation like that, then you are likely to discover new species.”
And, he added, “There’s just so much on this planet that hasn’t really been investigated scientifically, lots of areas in the Andes, in Himalayas, in southeast Asia, in the big, big rainforest areas of South America and Congo.
“We have not truly explored this earth, in terms of all the life forms that are on it. We are nowhere near complete in that effort.”