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OF A FEATHER

Not all is lost: Scientists discover 10 new bird species

Taliabu Grasshopper-warbler
James Eaton/Birdtour Asia
Taliabu Grasshopper-warbler, one of the new species discovered.
  • Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

Membership editor

Published

If you’re into birds, you know that they are extremely well-documented all over the world. Because of their important role in ecosystems and because they’re visible to the naked eye, scientists have carefully named and tracked them for centuries. Though five to six new species are discovered on average each year, the pace is often fairly slow, especially compared to, say, insects or fish.

That’s why it’s so notable that researchers discovered 10 new kinds of birds on a single six-week visit to three islands in Indonesia, according to a study published on Thursday (Jan. 9) in the journal Science. This was the biggest bird discovery in over a century.

The researchers, who hail from universities in Singapore and Indonesia, traveled to the Togian Islands, Peleng, and Taliabu off the northeastern coast of Sulawesi with the express purpose of finding birds. They succeeded, documenting the appearance and vocalizations of five new species of songbirds—a fantail, a grass warbler, a myzomela (honeyeater), two leaf warblers—as well as five subspecies of other kinds of birds.

“The description of this many bird species from such a geographically limited area is a rarity,” the researchers write.

There are, the researchers note, a few implications from these discoveries. One: It helps inform conservation efforts on these islands, especially since species on island ecosystems tend to evolve more quickly and thus have a higher concentration of unique species (think of Darwin’s Galapagos).

And two: Other scientists can take these lessons to find more new species more quickly. Some 86% of Earth’s species are not yet discovered, according to an influential 2011 study. If researchers focus their efforts on more unique ecosystems, like those at high altitudes, maybe they could put a dent in that. Other recent examples of high-volume bird species discovery “raise the possibility that unexplored areas of bird endemism may await discovery,” the researchers write.

Finding new species fast is particularly important in the midst of a mass extinction, which seems to be hitting birds particularly hard. As thousands of potentially undiscovered species die off in Australia’s huge fires and countless others are quietly snuffed out elsewhere in the world, it’s a good moment for scientists to redirect their efforts towards discovering new species, before they’re gone forever.

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