The long-lost black-browed babbler was rediscovered in Borneo

A bird was rediscovered on the Indonesian island of Borneo, which is only known from one specimen collected between 1843 and 1848.

In October 2020, Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan found the elusive black-eyed blabber during a weekly trip to collect forest products in South Kalimantan Province. After accidentally catching a bird that no one recognized, they took photos and notes and left it intact in the forest. They sent the photos to the local bird watching group, BW Galeatus, hoping to identify them.

The group suspected that it might be the black-browed babbler and immediately contacted ornithologists Panji Gusti Akbar, Teguh Willy Nugroho and Ding Li Yong, who reported the photos taken in South Kalimantan with an updated description of the field guide and photos of the only known specimen of compared the species in the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands.

A ‘Eureka!’ moment

“It was a bit like a ‘Eureka! ‘Wait a minute,’ said Gusti Akbar from the Indonesian bird protection group Birdpacker. “This bird is often referred to as the greatest mystery in Indonesian ornithology. It’s mind-boggling to think that it isn’t extinct and still lives in those lowland forests, but it’s also a bit scary because we don’t know if the birds are safe or how long they can survive. ”

The ornithologists and the men who found the bird published a brief paper on the discovery today, February 25th, in BirdingASIA, the magazine of the Oriental Bird Club. They say they will release more details in the coming months.

The black-eyed chatterer balanced next to a piece of Indonesian currency. Photo by Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan

The new photos of a living black-eyed babbler immediately provided new information about the species. Scientists now have a better understanding of the true coloration of the species. The babbler ‘s iris, beak, and legs were slightly different colors than the original, but the difference was not surprising to scientists, as these areas often lose their tint and are artificially colored during the preparation process.

The rediscovery is helping scientists and conservationists answer questions that have been swirling for more than a century. Scientists had never been sure where the bird lived in the wild. The original and only specimen that the German geologist and naturalist Carl ALM Schwaner collected between 1843 and 1848 and described by Charles Lucien Bonaparte in 1850 was originally incorrectly labeled and described as originating from Java. The naturalist Johann Büttikofer found in 1895 that the specimen could not have come from Java, as swans had not collected any birds on the island. After reviewing and reviewing the records of Schwan’s travels in Indonesia, scientists speculated that he might have found the bird near the town of Martapura or Banjarmasin in Borneo.

Rediscovered in the middle of the pandemic

“I find it amazing that we have managed to document one of the most remarkable zoological discoveries in Indonesia, mainly through online communication amid the pandemic that prevented us from visiting the site,” said Teguh Willy Nugroho, who works in Sebangau National Park in Kalimantan and is one of the co-authors on the paper.

Due to COVID-19 security precautions, scientists were unable to travel to the area where the black-browed babbler was found. However, they are working on a second paper to document its ecology and hope to work with local government agencies to help plan expeditions later this year.

“When the species was first discovered, extinct birds such as the great auk and passenger pigeon were still alive,” said Yong, co-author of the paper and Singapore-based conservationist at BirdLife International. “There is now a critical window of opportunity for conservationists to secure these forests to protect the babbler and other species.”

Scholars know very little about the black-browed babbler, but the Indonesian authors of the paper hope to work with local government agencies to quickly change this. They plan to travel to Borneo to determine exactly where the species lives, interview locals, study the babbler behavior, and assess the population – information that could be used to establish a new Red List status to recommend endangered species to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The bird is currently classified as a lack of data, and scientists are hoping to determine if and to what extent the species is critically endangered.

“Globally, there are more than 150 species of birds that are currently ‘lost’ with no confirmed observations in the past 10 years,” said John C. Mittermeier, director of endangered species for the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). “ABC, Global Wildlife Conservation, BirdLife International and eBird are working together to find these species. Hopefully the black-eyed babbler rediscovery will spark interest in finding other lost bird species in Asia and around the world. ”

“Discoveries like this are incredible and give us so much hope that it is possible to find other species that have been lost to science for decades or more,” said Barney Long, senior director of wildlife conservation at Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) and leading GWC’s lost species search program. “The collaboration between conservationists, local communities and indigenous peoples is critical to learning about and saving these elusive species.”

Over 1,600 bird species live on the Indonesian archipelago. Scientists hope the discovery will rekindle interest in surveying birds in under-explored areas. GWC, ABC, BirdLife International and eBird are working to search for lost birds around the world.

Many thanks to American Bird Conservancy for this report.

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