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Sulawesi streaked flycatcher named after 17 years

SINGAPORE — Almost all of the world’s bird species are believed to have been documented and named, but one has eluded researchers for 17 years. Last month, the Sulawesi streaked flycatcher, or Muscicapa sodhii, was finally confirmed as a species of flycatcher discovered in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Sulawesi streaked flycatcher named after 17 years

The Muscicapa sodhii was named after the late ecologist and ornithologist Navjot Sodhi, who was a professor at NUS and had been a mentor to some of the co-authors of the paper.
Photo: Martin Lindop

SINGAPORE — Almost all of the world’s bird species are believed to have been documented and named, but one has eluded researchers for 17 years. Last month, the Sulawesi streaked flycatcher, or Muscicapa sodhii, was finally confirmed as a species of flycatcher discovered in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The findings were published online by science journal PLOS ONE.

Unlike mammals, insects and even reptiles, of which multiple new species are discovered and described every year, only two to three birds are described, on average, each year. This has led to the belief that an estimated 98 per cent of birds have already been described.

New bird species typically come from South America’s largely unexplored territories in the Amazon basin. Few are found in Asia and even fewer in Africa.

First spotted in 1997, the Sulawesi streaked flycatcher was initially thought to be a different species of bird — the grey-streaked flycatcher, which migrates to Indonesia from territories such as Russia, Siberia and northern China in the winter months from October to March.

But the team of researchers, with collaborators from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Princeton University and Australian National University, among others, knew they were on to something when some of them finally made their way down to Sulawesi three years ago and discovered the flycatcher at the height of summer.

When observed more closely, the bird was found to have different physical features from flycatchers from the North.

After the researchers’ unsuccessful attempts to capture the species with nets stretched across the canopy, a local bird hunter gave the team a flycatcher he had shot with an air rifle. The hunter returned with a second specimen two days later.

These served as the type specimens for the researchers to begin closer studies on the bird.

“So far, this (was) a species that had been in the domain of cryptozoology,” said Professor Frank Rheindt, from the NUS Department of Biological Sciences, referring to the search for animals whose existence had not been proven.

“People didn’t have a name for it. They didn’t know if it was real or not. People didn’t have any proper documentation that showed it was a real species and not just a summering population of an existing species.”

“It made us suspect this was a new species to science,” added Prof Rheindt, who co-authored the paper and helped analyse the species to confirm it had a different set of DNA from most other known flycatcher species.

Calling it a “remarkable find”, he said they “were lucky that this one had gone under the radar”.

The researchers named the flycatcher Muscicapa sodhii after the late ecologist and ornithologist Navjot Sodhi, who was a professor at NUS and had been a mentor to some of the co-authors of the paper.

Like their counterparts, these flycatchers are insectivores and solitary birds that pair up during the breeding season. Along with having a markedly different plumage from other flycatchers — with a plainer face and streaked throat — they have a shorter wing span, a more strongly-hooked bill and a shorter tail.

“Ironically, it turns out that gray-streaked from the north and the Sulawesi streaked are completely unrelated to each other as flycatchers go. Within the genus Muscicapa, they’re in opposite corners,” said Prof Rheindt.

And unlike their counterparts, these birds have proven hardy in the face of deforestation, thriving in secondary rainforests where trees are felled to make way for cacao plantations. But little else is known about them.

Now that the species has a name, Prof Rheindt hopes this will enable hobby birdwatchers and scientists alike to go out and pin down what they see. So far, there have been fewer than 100 sightings.

He added that this would help put together a more comprehensive picture of where the species occurs, what habitats it lives in and how much habitat degradation it tolerates in the face of ongoing habitat destruction.

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