September 7, 2011
Given that most of the bird species in the world (a number somewhere around 9,000) were described before 1900, it is certainly newsworthy when a new one is discovered. I recently caught up via email with Rob Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s (SCBI) Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics, who determined that a museum specimen—a small, black and white seabird with blue legs that was found in 1963 on Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands—is actually a new species, a Bryan’s shearwater.
What was the last bird species to be discovered in the United States?
I believe it was the Po’ouli, a Hawaiian honeycreeper, that was discovered in 1973 in Maui.
The discovery of the Bryan’s shearwater was not based on a live-in-hand bird but a museum specimen. What species was the specimen thought to be up until now? And, why was it reassessed almost 50 years later?
In 2004, Peter Pyle [an ornithologist at the Institute for Bird Populations] pointed out to Storrs Olson [emeritus curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History] that the bird was not likely the species that others had thought it was (i.e., the Little Shearwater), which stimulated a DNA analysis at the time by me, and more detailed ones more recently by Andreanna Welch [a former graduate student and pre-doctoral fellow at SCBI]. It is always fun to reassess these sorts of specimens and see if you get something unexpected.
Incidentally, there are many anomalous specimens in collections that get assessed years after they are collected, and found to be something different—for example, the mis-provenanced “starling” specimen purportedly from Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean in the early 1800′s that turned out to be a trembler from Martinique in the Caribbean (see Olson et al. 2005, Bulletin of the British Ornithological Club).
How were you involved in the study of the bird?
Storrs and Peter requested that I take a small sample of toe pad from the bird and sequence a gene called cytochrome b. This gene had, at the time, been sequenced from dozens of other shearwater species for a study of the evolutionary relationships of these species, and thus we could make a comparison and see what it was and where it fit into the tree.
What did you discover about its genetics?
That the bird was different from any shearwater yet sequenced, and different enough that it might be a distinct species. In combination with the morphological differences, we decided it was a new species.
Is there any sense of how rare the Bryan’s shearwater is?
It has been confirmed as “seen” only twice (one was this specimen) and perhaps seen by observers a few additional times, so it is either very rare (maybe extinct?), or perhaps it just ranges in areas that are very rarely visited by ornithologists.
Who is Bryan? And why was the species named after him?
Edwin H. Bryan was a curator at the B.P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu, who studied birds, insects and other Hawaiian organisms from the 1920s through 1950s. He also was the grandfather of the lead author of our paper [published in The Condor].
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