10 New Songbird Species Have Been Discovered on a 'Lost World' in Indonesia

Ten new species of songbird have been discovered on three remote Indonesian islands. This is the most new bird species found in such a small geographic area in over 100 years.

There are around 11,000 known species of birds in the world. In 1946, the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr predicted there were unlikely more than 100 undiscovered species left, and until the 1990s he was right, researchers writing in the journal Science say.

The team, lead by Frank Rheindt, from the Department of Biological Sciences at the National University of Singapore, were exploring the islands of Taliabu, Peleng and Batudaka, off the eastern coast of Sulawesi, in the hope of finding new bird species.

The three islands, which the scientists call "a lost world in Wallacea," were selected because of the deep oceans that surround them. This suggests that even when sea levels were far lower, there was unlikely to have been a land bridge connecting them to other islands.

"This isolation makes them a promising candidate for hosting endemic species not shared with any other place on Earth," Rheindt told Newsweek. "These islands also happened to be among the ones that had been least often visited by historic collectors in the 19th and early 20th centuries, suggesting that undescribed species may still linger here."

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Researchers spent six weeks on the islands and in that time, found five new songbird species, and five new subspecies. "I was definitely surprised," Rheindt said. "The history of new bird species discoveries over the last 50 years has taught us that—while there are definitely still a number of undescribed species out there—it's rare to find several of them in one place. So this was highly unusual."

The new species include brightly colored birds like the Taliabu Myzomela and the Togian Jungle-flycatcher, as well as those with more subdued plumage, like the Taliabu Leaf-Warbler and the Taliabu Grasshopper-warblera—Rheindt's favourite.

"Small, brown and inconspicuous to a layperson, the most distinguishing feature of this bird is its cricket-like vocalization," he explained.

Taliabu Leaf - Warbler
Taliabu Leaf - Warbler James Eaton /Birdtour Asia

In the paper, the team say many of the newly discovered species are threatened by habitat loss, through both human and environmental impacts.

"A number of them are definitely struggling. All islands we visited have undergone heavy habitat loss. Taliabu—the main island—has been logged over multiple times by logging companies in the lowlands, and some loggers penetrated up to [around] 1,000 meters (0.6 miles).

"Nine out of the 10 new forms [inhabit mountains], but the highlands of Taliabu were hit by the fiercest fires in human memory at some point in the last few decades, with villagers reporting a long drought followed by the blaze, destroying some of the core areas of occurrence for many of the montane species described.

"Future droughts, fires and warming temperatures will lead to less and less suitable habitat available for these…birds. One of them, the Taliabu Grasshopper Warbler, is already severely threatened as it requires a peculiar type of stunted forest at high elevations that is extremely restricted in distribution now."

The researchers say the discovery of these new species has major implications for conservation. They conclude by saying without "urgent, long lasting conservation action," then some of the new species may be unlikely to survive beyond a few decades.

In an article accompanying the study, scientists Jonathan Kennedy and Jon Fjeldsa, who were not involved in the research, said the findings highlight how we are at risk of losing much of the world's biodiversity before it is ever discovered.

"Without knowing how many species there are in the world, and their distributions, our understanding of how ecological and evolutionary processes have generated the full diversity of life on Earth is incomplete, limiting our capacity to successfully maintain biodiversity into the future," they wrote.

Rheindt said they plan to continue their exploratory work in Indonesia and are planning further expeditions. He said they also hope other biologists will go out searching for new species in these isolated islands. "Birds are the best-known animals on Earth, so there are bound to be a lot more frogs, insects and lizards to be discovered there," he said.

David Kelly, from the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, also commented on the findings. He told Newsweek the findings "highlight the undocumented biodiversity within Wallacea," showing how there are still parts of the world that "are still awaiting basic scientific investigation and a full appreciation of what species live there."

He continued: "We hope that this discovery prompts further investigations of Indonesian birds, as well as clear conservation plans for the newly documented species."

However, he also warned there is an increasing trend for the collection of songbirds in Indonesia and surrounding countries, with new and rare species turning up for sale online.

"Perhaps their rarity is an important factor driving this collection," Kelly said. "Whatever the reason, it seems likely that any new songbird species described in Indonesia will automatically become a subject of interest to songbird collectors. Unless conservation efforts are launched as soon as new bird populations are described, such discoveries may, perversely, prove to be bad news for the birds themselves."

This article has been updated to include quotes from David Kelly.