Mystery Bird Discovered On Indonesian Island

James Owen in England
for National Geographic News
January 26, 2004

Scientists exploring an island in Indonesia have found a bird they believe is new to science.

The bird's DNA is soon to be analyzed to determine whether it's a new species or a radically altered subspecies, descended from castaways blown from another island. To complicate things further, the bird could also be an as-yet-unidentified pet trade escapee.

This, however, is highly unlikely, according to Nicola Marples, zoology lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland.

"It's almost certainly a new species, or the first ever subspecies of the pale-bellied white eye," she said. "While it could also be a feral escape population from elsewhere, we don't think this is the case as we've found no other bird that matches its description."

Marples, as part of a team led by fellow zoologists David Kelly, from Trinity College, and Martin Meads, a freelance researcher, discovered the bird last summer on Wangi Wangi island in southeast Sulawesi.

Meads says the bird, known provisionally as the Wangi Wangi white eye, is found only in one area, near the village of Wanci. He added, "Our surveys, which were conducted over a seven-day period, never recorded the species in any other part of the island."

Sulawesi is of great scientific interest as it forms part of a zoogeographical zone known as Wallacea. The region marks the boundary between Oriental fauna and distinctive Australasian animals such as marsupials.

The new find is thought to belong to a group of small, mainly insectivorous birds called white eyes, which are related to warblers. As well as the characteristic white ring around the eye, they usually have green plumage with white, yellow or greyish underparts.

The mystery bird was first spotted in scrubland along with lemon-bellied white eyes (Zosterops chloris). Marples says the species it most closely resembles is the pale-bellied white eye (Zosterops consobrinorum), though there are some striking differences.

Big Beak

"The Wangi Wangi white eye is almost half as big again," Marples explained. "The beak is big and yellow rather than small and black, while it has grey on the breast instead of being entirely white. It also has very pale feet which is most unusual."

The study team suspect the bird evolved into a separate island race having been blown astray and marooned on Wangi Wangi, part of the Tukangbesi archipelago. The nearest known pale-bellied white eye population is on Buton island, over 20 miles (32 kilometers) away.

Continued on Next Page >>


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