Something new (to science) under the sun

29 03 2012

A feathery handful: the tiny Bryan's Shearwater

John Gerwin, Bird Curator at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and Friend of SEANET (F.o.S.) has sent along a few seabirdy tidbits and this first one caught my eye right away: the discovery of a new species of bird? In this modern age? Indeed, it’s true. The diminutive Bryan’s Shearwater was only just identified as distinct from all the world’s other shearwaters.

While explorers continue to discover new species of smaller organisms daily (insects, bacteria, nematodes and the like) new bird species are all but unheard of, having declined sharply after the Golden Age of Victorian gentleman naturalists. Back in 1963, a tiny shearwater specimen was collected from a burrow in a petrel colony on Midway Atoll in Northwestern Hawaii. At the time, the bird was not recognized as anything new and was presumed to be a particularly small individual of a known species. Only last year, ornithologist Peter Pyle examined the specimen and declared it distinct in several features from any known shearwater species. After his findings, DNA from the specimen was submitted to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, and analysis there revealed it is genetically distinct from any known species as well. At that point, the bird received its new moniker, the Bryan’s Shearwater, for  Edwin Horace Bryan Jr., who was curator of collections at the B.P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu from 1919 until 1968.

After the identification, focus shifted to determining whether the species still exists anywhere in the world. Sure enough, Japanese researchers reported 6 specimens on the Ogasawara Islands. Five were found dead between 1997 and 2011, and the sole living specimen died in a rehabilitation facility. The researchers in Japan believe there may be over a hundred of the birds on the island, but fear that the island’s introduced rat population may be taking a serious toll on the birds if they attempt to breed. Rats will consume the eggs and chicks of burrow or ground-nesting birds, and sometimes even kill adults. Rat eradication is difficult and expensive, but if the Bryan’s Shearwater is proven to breed on these islands, there won’t be any alternative but to try to protect this rare, newly discovered bird by every available means. This is a story we will follow with interest, despite its Pacific origins. After all, a new, rare species that may still be hanging on despite terrible odds is something to root for.

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