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Wakatobi Flowerpecker — new bird discovered by Irish scientists

A team of scientists from Trinity College Dublin has discovered a new bird species on the Tukangbesi Islands off the coast of Sulawesi in Indonesian.

Wakatobi Flowerpecker
Male Wakatobi Flowerpecker as discovered by a team of Irish scientists in Indonesia (Trinity College Dublin / PA Wire)

Dubbed the Wakatobi Flowerpecker (Wakatobi is an acronym derived from the names of the four main islands in the Tukangbesi chain, Wangi-wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko) the Irish scientist demonstrated that the bird was genetically distinct from, and significantly larger than the superficially similar grey-sided flowerpecker, it’s nearest relative on adjacent islands. Genetic evidence shows that the birds don’t inter-breed, and implies that they don’t cross the 27km stretch of open water between the islands.

The paper describing the new species was published recently in the open access science and medical  journal PLOS ONE, and according to lead author, Trinity PhD student Séan Kelly, highlights the need for more coordinated and intensive study of the area’s biodiversity.

“As humans are changing the natural environments of Sulawesi at an incredibly fast rate, the discovery and description of species in the region is of major importance,” he said.

“This study also highlights the need for integrative, multi-disciplinary research in the region. Without this we will likely fail to recognise 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.”

Wakatobi Flowerpecker Plumage Types
A comparison of overall plumage characteristics between male (top row) and female (bottom row) flowerpeckers from mainland Sulawesi (left column) and the Wakatobi archipelago (right column) — Image Trinity College / PLOS ONE

The Wakatobi area of Sulawesi is part of the biodiversity hotspot known as Wallacea, made famous by Alfred Russell Wallace, who along with the more well known Charles Darwin is credited as one of the founding fathers of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Yet despite harbouring an incredible diversity of bird species found nowhere else on earth, the area remains poorly studied and understood.

Dr Nicola Marples, Associate Professor of Zoology at Trinity and senior author on the paper stressed the importance of the discovery, and how the presence of a species confined to this small chain of islands would potentially change the conservation landscape of the region.

“The identification of a species that is confined entirely to the Wakatobi Islands will require conservation organisations such as BirdLife International to reassess the protection status afforded to these islands. 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,” she said.

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