A bird in the flowerpecker family from a small chain of islands in Indonesia is a unique species, not a subspecies, as it has been classified for more than 100 years, according to scientists.
Until now, Grey-sided Flowerpecker (Dicaeum celebicum), a common and widespread songbird from the large, biologically diverse Sulawesi Island, was considered to have five subspecies. One of them, Dicaeum celebicum kuehni, first described in 1903, lives on the Wakatobi Islands, a chain of small islands 17 miles (27 km) from mainland Sulawesi.
Seán Kelly, a PhD student in zoology at Trinity College Dublin, and colleagues found that the Wakatobi birds are significantly larger than their mainland cousins and, most important, are genetically distinct. Their research, published today by the open-access journal PLOS ONE, shows that interbreeding does not occur, and it suggests that the Wakatobi birds do not cross the ocean to the mainland.
Kelly and his co-authors propose that the species be known as Wakatobi Flowerpecker (Dicaeum kuehni). The male has a black head and back and a prominent red breast. The female is mostly gray above and lighter below.
How many more birds await discovery?
The scientists say their finding may be the tip of the iceberg. Genetic analyses have not been performed on many bird species in the Sulawesi region, they say, which has likely led to a significant underestimate of the number of species in the area.
“Accurate data on the distribution and status of bird species are regularly used to inform conservation practices and industrial development,” says Kelly. “As humans are changing the natural environments of Sulawesi at an incredibly fast rate, the discovery and description of species in the region are of major importance.”
He added: “This study also highlights the need for integrative, multi-disciplinary research in the region. Without this we will likely fail to recognize and appreciate the true biodiversity of this remarkable region. Furthermore, we run the risk of losing evolutionarily distinct species before we can even discover or enjoy them.”
Indonesia’s Sulawesi region is part of the biodiversity hotspot of Wallacea, named after Alfred Russel Wallace, the 19th-century British explorer who described evolution by natural selection at about the same time Charles Darwin did. Despite boasting an incredibly large number of bird species that are found nowhere else in the world, Sulawesi has remained poorly studied.
“The identification of a species that is confined entirely to the Wakatobi Islands will require conservation organizations such as BirdLife International to reassess the protection status afforded to these islands,” says Nicola Marples, associate professor of zoology at Trinity and a senior author on the paper. “While the islands sit within the Wakatobi Marine National Park, they currently receive no protection. The Wakatobi Islands are an incredibly exciting place to work and they serve as a unique living laboratory in which we can study evolution in action.” — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor
Read the paper
Seán B. A. Kelly, David J. Kelly, Natalie Cooper, Andi Bahrun, Kangkuso Analuddin, and Nicola M. Marples (2014). Molecular and Phenotypic Data Support the Recognition of the Wakatobi Flowerpecker (Dicaeum kuehni) from the Unique and Understudied Sulawesi Region. PLOS ONE 9(6): e98694. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0098694. Read the paper.