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New seabird discovered from Hawaii, but no one knows where it lives

Researchers have uncovered a new seabird native to Hawaii stuffed in a museum. Originally identified as a smaller variation of a little shearwater (Puffinus assimilis), DNA tests showed that the bird, which was collected over four decades ago, was in fact a unique species. Named Bryan’s shearwater (Puffinus bryani), the fate of this bird in the wild remains unknown.

“It’s very unusual to discover a new species of bird these days and especially gratifying when DNA can confirm our original hypothesis that the animal is unique. This bird is unique, both genetically and in appearance, and represents a novel, albeit very rare, species,” explains Rob Fleischer, head of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center (SCBI) for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics where the DNA was analyzed, in a press release.

Bryan’s shearwater is now the smallest of the world’s 22 shearwater species. The museum specimen was collected 1963 in a burrow among petrels during the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program. Genetic evidence now shows that Bryan’s shearwater separated from its closest relative, Boyd’s shearwater (Puffinus boydi), two million years ago.

Bryan's shearwater. Photo by: Reginald David.
Bryan’s shearwater. Photo by: Reginald David.

The problem is no one knows where to find the new species in the wild. According to researchers, its breeding ground could be anywhere in the Pacific.

“We don’t believe that Bryan’s shearwaters breed regularly on Midway or other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, based on the extensive seabird work in these islands during the Pacific Seabird Project,” Peter Pyle, an ornithologist at the Institute for Bird Populations, who first noticed the specimen was possible a new species.

While researchers are hopeful the bird is still soaring, there is a chance it is extinct. Most likely it is rare, and probably endangered, given that it has avoided identification until now.

“If we can find where this species breeds, we may have a chance to protect it and keep it from going extinct,” Andreanna Welch, a Smithsonian predoctoral fellow at SCBI who worked on the seabird’s DNA. “Genetic analysis allows us to investigate whether an animal represents an entirely different species, and that knowledge is important for setting conservation priorities and preventing extinction.”

No new seabird has been identified for over half a century until this year when, bizarrely enough, two new seabirds have been announced thus far. Earlier in the year, researchers announced the discovery of another new seabird, this one a storm petrel, off the coast of Chile. They are currently working on analyzing the bird, but are confident it has never been described before.

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