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New honeyeater species described from Indonesia’s Alor Island

  • Scientists have described a new bird species found only on the island of Alor in eastern Indonesia.
  • The Alor myzomela is easily distinguished from other known members of the Myzomela genus of honeyeater birds thanks to its unique call and paler upper wings.
  • A growing human population on the island is already fragmenting the species’ only known habitat, prompting the researchers to recommend it be considered endangered on the IUCN Red List.
  • The bird’s scientific name, Myzomela prawiradilagae, is a tribute to prominent ornithologist Dewi Malia Prawiradilaga from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

JAKARTA — Scientists have described a new bird species found only on the Indonesian island of Alor, where a growing human population is already encroaching on the bird’s volcanic habitat.

The description of Myzomela prawiradilagae — named after prominent ornithologist Dewi Malia Prawiradilaga from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) — is a culmination of field observations by different research groups between 2002 and 2016, according to a paper published in the Journal of Ornithology on Oct. 5.

“The presence of an endemic species of Myzomela honeyeater on Alor is of great biogeographic significance,” the authors write.

Google Earth images of Indonesia and, inset, Alor Island.
The habitat of the Alor myzomela. Image courtesy of Philippe Verbelen.

The Alor myzomela is known to inhabit only eucalyptus woodland at elevations above 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) on the island, showing more pronounced differences in ecological preferences and lifestyle than other honeyeaters in the genus. It’s closely related to the crimson-hooded myzomela (M. kuehni) from the nearby island of Wetar, down to the red head, but differs in other physical characteristics and in its calls. These include dusky brown upper wings that are much paler than the black upperwings of other Myzomela species, and a call that researchers have transcribed as “tssip” or “vick.”

“The whole team was excited to have scientifically described the new bird species from Alor,” Mohammad Irham, a scientist with LIPI and the lead author of the paper, told Mongabay in an email.

He said the team spotted about 20 individuals of the new species during a single observation, but getting a full population estimate for the Alor myzomela will require further research.

The field visits were important in collecting a specimen, getting sound recordings and photographs, and characterizing their habitat use, the authors write. They used DNA sequencing to confirm the species is new to science.

The Alor myzomela (Myzomela prawiradilagae). Image courtesy of Philippe Verbelen.

A population estimate will be critical to assessing any threats to the species. The researchers note that its habitat is undergoing fragmentation by a growing human population on the island, which has prompted them to recommend it be considered endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Frank Rheindt, a scientist with the National University of Singapore’s Department of Biological Sciences and co-author of the paper, said most tribes on Alor built their villages on hilltops, from where it was easier to cultivate the surrounding slopes.

“The population of these hilltop villages has been steadily increasing with high modern reproduction rates following increasing development,” Rheindt told Mongabay in an email.

“Burgeoning human populations will exert ever more pressure on the remaining woodlots in this area,” he added.

While the locals have long known of the species, Rheindt said it was a generally small, inconspicuous member of the local birdlife that the villagers didn’t pay much attention to.

“Awareness about its existence was a necessary first step to ensure it does not silently go extinct,” he said.

In Indonesia, all species in the genus Myzomela are protected under the country’s 1990 Conservation Law and a 1999 government regulation on wildlife.

The researchers said the description of the Alor myzomela as the latest species endemic to the island of Alor should elevate the island to the status of an “endemic bird area.”

“This status can be a reference for the local government to highlight Alor as an important island for wildlife, especially birds,” Irham said.

“The reference hopefully can be a foundation for conservation management there, considering that [species endemic to] small islands have a much higher risk of extinction than big islands, and also for other potential [initiatives] that support the economy, such ecotourism.”

The Alor myzomela (Myzomela prawiradilagae). Image courtesy of Philippe Verbelen.

Irham, M., Ashari, H., Suparno, Trainor, C. R., Verbelen, P., Wu, M. Y., & Rheindt, F. E. (2019). A new Myzomela honeyeater (Meliphagidae) from the highlands of Alor Island, Indonesia. Journal of Ornithology. doi:10.1007/s10336-019-01722-2

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