- The Spectacled Flowerpecker wasn’t entirely unknown up until now. Scientists and birdwatchers have spotted the small, gray bird in the lowland tropical forests of Borneo in the past, with the first sighting appearing to have occurred in Sabah, Malaysia’s Danum Valley in 2009.
- A team led by scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. collected a specimen and studied the species for the first time earlier this year. The researchers formally described the Spectacled Flowerpecker to science in a study published in the journal Zootaxa yesterday.
- The researchers say that it’s likely the bird’s current distribution has “become increasingly fragmented and diminished” thanks to human impacts on Borneo’s forests. They hope that by formally describing the new species of flowerpecker, they can help call attention to the importance of Borneo’s lowland forests.
There’s a new species of fruit-eating bird in Borneo that is now known as the Spectacled Flowerpecker.
The species wasn’t entirely unknown up until now. Scientists and birdwatchers have spotted the small, gray bird in the lowland tropical forests of Borneo in the past, with the first sighting appearing to have occurred in Sabah, Malaysia’s Danum Valley in 2009. But a team led by scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. collected a specimen and studied the species for the first time. The researchers formally described the Spectacled Flowerpecker to science in a study published in the journal Zootaxa yesterday.
There are close to 50 species in the flowerpecker family spread throughout tropical southern Asia, Australia, and neighboring islands. Borneo is home to 13 of the currently known and accepted flowerpecker species; only the island of Sumatra and the Philippines harbor more flowerpeckers, with 16 species and 15 species, respectively.
Despite living in close proximity to so many of its cousins, molecular analysis shows that the Spectacled Flowerpecker isn’t closely related to any other known flowerpecker species, according to Christopher Milensky, the collections manager for the National Museum of Natural History’s Division of Birds who led the survey during which the discovery of the new species occurred.
“This bird is totally unique,” Milensky said in a statement. “It’s unlike anything else, and it is the latest example of the rich biodiversity that can be found in this region.”
When it was first photographed by a group of birders in 2009, the new bird’s stout body shape and short bill immediately suggested it was a flowerpecker, but the white markings above and below its eyes, which give the bird its distinctive “spectacled” look, didn’t match up with any known flowerpecker species.
The bird was sporadically observed in the wild over the next decade. No scientists got their hands on a specimen to study until earlier this year, when Milensky and Jacob Saucier, a specialist at the Smithsonian museum and the lead author of the study describing the new species, discovered the bird in the Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary, a wildlife preserve in southwestern Borneo several miles from any previously reported sighting of the species.
Milensky and Saucier took their unexpected discovery back to the museum in order to analyze its external features and DNA. The genetic analysis revealed yet another surprising find: the bird that was immediately tagged as a flowerpecker isn’t terribly similar to its closest relatives. “It isn’t related to any of the other flowerpeckers all that closely,” Saucier said. “It’s a whole new species that distinctly stands out.”
The Spectacled Flowerpecker had been seen eating mistletoe, a parasitic plant that grows high in the forest canopy and is a staple of many flowerpecker diets. Saucier and the research team used DNA analysis and inspected seeds found in the bird’s digestive tract to determine exactly which type of mistletoe the bird prefers, affording new insight into the bird’s ecological needs and habitat preferences as well as, hopefully, making it easier for people to spot the new species even though it typically sticks to the treetops, Saucier said.
He added that, because assistance from local communities was vital in granting the research team access to the wildlife preserve and animals for study, they gave the Spectacled Flowerpecker the scientific name Dicaeum dayakorum in honor of the Dayak native people of Borneo. “Their immense knowledge of the flora and fauna of their homeland forests is irreplaceable and crucial to future conservation efforts of Borneo’s endemic ecosystems,” Saucier and his co-authors write in the study.
Based on the many locations across the island of Borneo where the species has been observed, the researchers believe the new flowerpecker could be widespread. “We think that wherever primary forest and mistletoe occur, there’s a good chance this bird could be there,” Saucier said.
But given how little we know about the distribution of the species, habitat fragmentation and disturbance “should not be underestimated” as threats to the birds, Saucier and team write. The researchers also note, however, that the fact that the species was discovered in Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary “is a reason to be hopeful… We see no reason why D. dayakorum would not occur throughout the sanctuary’s pristine forests, or the contiguous Batang Ai National Park to the south.”
Still, the researchers say that it’s likely the bird’s current distribution has “become increasingly fragmented and diminished” thanks to human impacts on Borneo’s forests. Saucier and team hope that by formally describing the new species of flowerpecker, they can help call attention to the importance of Borneo’s lowland forests.
“Lowland forests such as this are the heart of Borneo’s ecosystems,” they write in the study. “Sadly, these sanctuaries are under increasing threat with the encroachment of intensive selective logging and unsustainable agricultural practices, including widespread conversion of lowland forest to oil palm. It should also be noted that the indigenous Iban Dayak inhabitants of the region are the primary facilitators of conservation upkeep and protection. The imperilment and continued diminishment of these traditional longhouse communities is an underappreciated threat to the protection of these vital areas.”
• Saucier, J.R., Milensky, C.M., Caraballo-Ortiz, M.A., Ragai, R., Dahlan, F.N., & Edwards, D.P. (2019). A distinctive new species of flowerpecker (Passeriformes: Dicaeidae) from Borneo. Zootaxa. doi:10.11646/zootaxa.4686.4.1