A newly described songbird in South America — first spotted by ornithologists guiding a birding tour in Peru more than 20 years ago — represents not just a new species but also a new genus.
A team of scientists led by researchers from the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science and a natural history museum in Bolivia described the bird, which they named Inti Tanager (Heliothraupis oneilli), in a recent paper in the journal Ornithology.
Daniel Lane, an LSU Museum research associate, and Gary H. Rosenberg, a tour leader from Arizona who has a master’s in ornithology from LSU, first saw the bird in October 2000. Lane heard the bird’s song, thinking it was likely a more common species, but when he saw it, it just didn’t add up. What followed was more than a decade of determined searching and data collection from Lane, Rosenberg, and eventually a group of researchers from Bolivia and the U.S. to discover and describe this entirely new bird.
“When Dan and I first laid eyes on this tanager, we both immediately thought it must be a new genus of tanager, which indeed it turned out to be,” Rosenberg said.
Male Inti Tanagers are canary-yellow birds with a contrasting black stripe on their heads. Males also have salmon-pink bills and a bushy crest. Females are primarily yellow with bright orange or pink on their bills but lack the black eyebrow and the crest. The species breeds in deciduous forest in Bolivia during the rainy season, which runs from November to March, and spends the dry season dispersed along the lower slopes of the Andes in Peru, occupying bamboo-dominated habitats.
The word “Inti” in the common name means “sun” in the regional Quechua language. “This species reminds me of the sun in multiple ways,” said LSU’s Ryan Terrill. “It often sings through the middle of the day, and so it is out in the sun. It looks like a little sun, and it’s in the open sunny habitat.”
Inti Tanager breeding area found in 2011
In 2004, Lane collected the first specimen of this species, but the description was still hamstrung by a lack of genetic material to sort out just what this new bird was, and what it wasn’t. It was not until 2011, when Frank Rheindt, then a post-doc at Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and now a researcher at the National University of Singapore, discovered a breeding population in Bolivia that a picture began to develop for Heliothraupis oneilli.
The breeding population was found in an isolated habitat on the east side of the Andes mountains that several field ornithologists had visited before, including researchers from LSU. But these prior visits had always been in the dry season when the deciduous forest had shed its leaves and bird activity was low. By comparison, Rheindt visited the same location during the wet season, to find the bird to be locally quite common in the area. It was a matter of being at the right place at the right time.
Lane, Rheindt, Ryan Terrill, an LSU PhD student at the time and current postdoctoral researcher with the Moore Laboratory of Zoology at Occidental College, and Jonathan Schmitt, a grad student at the University of New Mexico and now a PhD student at Harvard University, returned in 2012. Lane and Bolivian ornithologist Miguel Angel Aponte returned one last time in 2019 to get more information on the Inti Tanager and acquire the genetic material for phylogenetic studies, allowing the team to figure out what this new bird’s closest relatives are.
Kevin Burns, another LSUMNS alumnus and current professor at San Diego State University — and a world authority of tanager phylogenetics — entered the picture as he and some students placed the new species in the family tree of tanagers. It was that work that made clear this distinctive new bird was best described as a new genus as well as species.
That this discovery led to an entirely new genus is noteworthy: since the 1960s, fewer than 10 new genera of birds have been described.
Thanks to Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science for providing this news.