Photograph courtesy Reginald David, Smithsonian Institution
Published August 30, 2011
A new bird species has been discovered in the U.S. for the first time in nearly 30 years—but the species may have already flown the coop for good, a new study says.
Scientists in Washington, D.C., identified the tiny seabird, dubbed Bryan's shearwater (Puffinus bryani), from a single specimen collected in 1963 at Midway Atoll (map) in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Though the bird had been thought to be a new species, it took a recent DNA analysis to confirme that fact.
P. bryani—named for Edwin Horace Bryan, Jr., late curator of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu—is the first bird species named in the United States since the 1974 discovery of the po'ouli, found on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Not only is Bryan's shearwater the smallest of about 21 shearwater species, it also has a longer, blacker tail than related birds, according to study co-author Rob Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics in Washington, D.C.
"Most people looking at it ... say they all look the same," Fleischer said. "But to someone who's trained to see these differences, they're striking."
New Bird Species Already Extinct?
With only one specimen in existence—another P. bryani was captured temporarily and photographed in 1990—scientists know very little about the black-and-white seabird.
The Midway Atoll and nearby islands have been extensively surveyed for seabirds, so it's unlikely a healthy P. bryani population would have gone unnoticed, Fleischer noted. Considering this, the bird could be extremely rare or even extinct.
Even so, "seabirds have a habit of hiding—they're long-lived, so they can be out at sea for a long time," he said.
What's more, Fleischer and colleagues suspect P. bryani, if it still exists, likely breeds in Japan or elsewhere in the Pacific and is only a temporary resident of the Hawaiian Islands. Scientists often gather information about birds by researching their breeding colonies.
(Read about the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in National Geographic magazine.)
"It's always nice to add new species to put on the list," Fleischer said, though "you now have a new species to be concerned about that appears to be very rare."
It's not a good thing, he added, "when we can't even find the bird to manage it."
New bird species study appeared in August in the journal Condor.
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