Trove of New Bird Species Found on Remote Indonesian Islands


One day in 2009, Frank Rheindt was wandering up a forested mountainside on an Indonesian island when the skies opened up. He had spent months planning this trip, days finding a charter boat that would carry him to this remote place, and hours plodding uphill, but the local tour guides insisted that the rain would make the search impossible.

Reluctantly, Dr. Rheindt agreed to head to lower ground.

But on the way down, even with the deluge, he was startled by the sight of a thrush sitting on a log. Dr. Rheindt, an ornithologist, knew that a thrush shouldn’t have been on that island, and that the species normally would seek shelter from the rain.

A little farther along, he heard the distinctive call of a grasshopper warbler, an endangered bird that’s normally hard to spot. “I could tell from the sound that it was a grasshopper warbler, but different than I was used to,” he said. “That’s when I knew I was going to come up again.”

Birds are considered the most well-cataloged class of organisms — far more is known about them than about insects, for instance. But still, 160 new species have been discovered in the last 30 years. Dr. Rheindt’s addition of so many more is a substantial contribution, said Joel Cracraft, curator of the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The islands are both inhabited — largely at lower elevations than where Dr. Rheindt traveled, but he used logging trails to reach some sites. Human habitation and exploitation of natural resources threaten the islands’ habitats, he said.

Andrew Berry, a lecturer on evolutionary biology at Harvard University, said via email that Wallace would have loved the new study, because it targeted the same types of locations — remote and geologically unusual — that Wallace favored during his exploration of Southeast Asia from 1854 to 1862.

Wallace described nearly 2 percent of all known bird species during his time there, Dr. Berry said, conducting the kind of basic descriptive biology that undergirds this new research. “Identifying new species might seem unsexy, the scientific equivalent of stamp collecting,” Dr. Berry said.

“Wallace was extraordinarily prescient about this,” he said, “complaining as early as 1863 that his fellow Victorians were hypocrites in their insistence, as creationists, that each species was the handiwork of God, yet all the while failing to lift a finger to conserve them.”

In an essay, Wallace wrote that:

Future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.

The new findings highlight the need to catalog and conserve biological diversity, said Jonathan Kennedy, an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Sheffield, who wrote a commentary that ran with the new study.

It was from Wallacea, Dr. Kennedy said, that Wallace sent his famous letter to Darwin, laying out what he had reasoned about evolution and persuading Darwin to publish his own ideas for the first time.

“So, the discovery and description of biological diversity can be considered a significant driving force behind the development of one of the greatest ever scientific theories,” Dr. Kennedy said. “The findings of Rheindt et al. suggest to me that there is still so much more to discover and learn about life in this area of the world.”

If there are birds left to be found in places like Wallacea, then there are almost certainly other animal species there that haven’t been scientifically described, Dr. Kennedy said, warning that they “are under threat of becoming extinct before they’re scientifically known.”



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