Extinction is more than an existential crisis. According to data from the United Nations, approximately 1 million animal species are now threatened with extinction — and over the last five centuries, almost 700 vertebrate species have been lost to the annals of history.
But it’s not all bad news. Despite evolving environmental issues, Earth’s biodiversity continues to surprise scientists across the globe. Case in point: Five new bird species and five subspecies were discovered on remote Indonesian islands.
Bird Is the Word
Led by Frank Rheindt, this bird-finding foray focused on three landmasses surrounded by deep sea: the Peleng and Taliabu islands and the Togian Islands group. According to Rheindt, deep-sea islands offer increased potential for new species discovery because “those are the ones that are likely to have endemic species that are not shared with other landmasses” — even when sea levels fell these islands remained insulated from the mainland, preserving the native fauna.
While Rheindt found records of 11 past trips by researchers, Smithsonian Magazine notes they were either short-lived or stuck to the coast. No one had attempted to move inland or take on higher elevations where new bird species could potentially nest. So in 2013, Rheindt and other intrepid explorers teamed up with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences to mount a six-week expedition. In January 2020, they released their findings of five new bird species and five subspecies.
According to Science News, the newly discovered species are songbirds and include warblers, leaftoilers, flycatchers, thrushes and fantails. Using a combination of physical feature observation, DNA analysis and song variation, Rheindt’s team was able to identify species such as the bright red-orange male Taliabu Myzomela honeyeater (Myzomela wahe) and the Togian jungle-flycatcher (Cyornis omissus omississimus). But the standout was a grasshoper-warbler (Locustella portenta) with a song more bug- than bird-like.
Rheindt suspects that many of Indonesia’s 20,000 islands are also home to undiscovered species, but wasn’t prepared for the fact “that this was going to be a bonanza of new species and subspecies.” While the answer to the question “exactly how many species of birds are there?” is still up in the air — recent research puts the total around 18,000 — increased Indonesian exploration could significantly expand this number.
Filling in the Blanks
Finding new birds to flesh out the biodiversity catalog is fairly common — on average, five new species are discovered each year. But avians aren’t the only addition to our environmental education. As noted by CNN, scientists documented 71 new plant and animal species in 2019. Some of the highlights include:
- The Wakanda Fish: Named after the fictional nation, this purple-hued Black Panther shout-out lives in dark “Twilight Zone” coral reefs.
- The Girdled Lizard: Cordylus phonolithos was found on Angola’s second-highest mountain peak and speaks to the need to go where no one’s gone before.
- The Pale Spider: Found in Croatian caves, the Lola konavoka is adapted to life in the dark. It’s already endangered.
- The Skate Snout: It didn’t take long for this long-snout skate discovery from the Falkland Islands to show up in local marketplaces.
Continuing discoveries of new species and subspecies suggest how little we really know about life on planet Earth, and creates a perplexing paradox: We’re always adding new species as extinctions remove others, but even these newcomers are under ecological threat. And while there’s evidence that under the right conditions species can evolve rapidly to survive — and even thrive — in new environments, the current pace of change often outstrips their ability to adapt.
Finding species isn’t limited to the present. A new tyrannosaur variation was recently discovered in Alberta, Canada, and according to Francois Therrian of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, this so-called “reaper of death” is significant for paleontology “because it fills in a gap in our understanding of tyrannosaur evolution.”
In some respects, the Indonesian treasure trove of isolated bird species is similar — unique variations on existing bird taxonomies that have existed undisturbed for hundreds or thousands of years. While the Alberta discovery points to what was and helps fill in critical evolutionary gaps, the Indonesian discovery points to what is: New species are already on the brink of ecological collapse thanks to increasing wildfires and logging efforts.
Rheindt puts it simply “Our world needs a new impetus, a renaissance in biodiversity discovery. We need more of that now because we can only conserve what we know.” Hopefully, increased exploration and conservation means the answer to the question “how many species of birds are there worldwide?” will continue trending upward.
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