This streaky little bird is brand new to science

Above, two views of the Sulawesi streaked flycatcher. (Credit: Adapted from original paintings by Teo Nam Siang in Harris, et al. (2014) A New Species of Muscicapa Flycatcher from Sulawesi, Indonesia. PLoS ONE 9(11): e112657. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112657)

Fifteen years after an elusive new bird was spotted on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, a team of scientists confirms the discovery.

The Sulawesi streaked flycatcher, Muscicapa sodhii, has a mottled throat and short wings that set it apart from other species. It’s found in the forested lowlands of Sulawesi where it was first observed in 1997.

Hear the Sulawesi streaked flycatcher sing:

 

The researchers report in PLOS ONE that the new species is markedly different from other flycatchers in its plumage, body structure, song, and genetics, which prove that it is a new species.

Because the bird has survived in a region heavily degraded by cacao plantations, the species is not currently at risk of extinction.

“The Sulawesi streaked flycatcher is similar to related Asian species in its song, producing whistles, chirps and trills, but is slightly more high-pitched and lacks the lower-pitched notes that other species make,” says Pam Rasmussen, assistant professor of zoology at Michigan State University and assistant curator of mammalogy and ornithology at the MSU Museum.

“We were lucky to be able to make the first known recording of this bird singing.”

Rasmussen, the author of Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide, also runs the global bird sounds website AVoCet, where the bird’s song is archived. (The recording above, by Pamela C. Rasmussen and Bert Harris, is courtesy of AVoCet.)

A rare find

Rasmussen and J.C. Berton Harris, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University’s Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy, and their collaborators’ work finally allows this bird, which has awaited formal scientific description since 1997, to be included in scientific publications and conservation plans.

the Sulawesi streaked flycatcher
Above, the Sulawesi streaked flycatcher. (Credit: Courtesy of Martin Lindop via Michigan State)

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“Considering that 98 percent of the world’s birds have been described, finding a new species is quite rare,” Harris says. “And despite being a globally important avian hotspot, Sulawesi has largely gone unstudied by ornithologists.”

With funding from the National Geographic Society, Harris, Rasmussen, and other collaborators traveled to Central Sulawesi in 2011 and 2012 to continue the search for the mysterious animal. After weeks of camping, the researchers finally found the bird—in the place it was originally seen—in summer 2012, observing several of them.

A full examination of the bird’s measurements, genetics, and plumage revealed that, compared with similar flycatchers, the bird has shorter wings, a more strongly hooked bill, and a shorter tail. Its plumage also is distinct, as the bird has a plainer face and streaked throat.

The new species’ DNA shows that it is only distantly related to the gray-streaked flycatcher, and it most closely resembles the Thailand population of the Asian brown flycatcher.

Rasmussen is quite familiar with the thorough process required to confirm the discovery of new birds. In 2012, Rasmussen was part of a team that discovered two owls in the Philippines residing in forests on sparsely populated islands.

While the new species does not require pristine rainforest to survive, it does appear to be dependent on tall forest trees spared by farmers.

“At this point, the species is not at risk for extinction,” Rasmussen says. “However, this could change if agriculture intensifies in this region.”

Additional researchers contributing to this study include Ding Li Yong from the Australian National University and Southeast Asian Biodiversity Society; Dewi Prawiradilaga from the Research Center for Biology-LIPI in Indonesia; Dadang Dwi Putra from the Celebes Bird Club in Indonesia; Philip Round from Mahidol University in Bangkok; and Frank Rheindt from the National University of Singapore.

Source: Michigan State University