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New Bird Species Acts like a Ventriloquist

Sep 04, 2013 03:30 PM EDT

A new species of bird that lives in the jungles of the Philippines has been described in The Condor, the scientific journal of the Cooper Ornithological Society.

The forest-dwelling bird has strong legs but weak wings and can barely fly. It sings its birdsong at such a high pitch that it creates a ventriloquist effect in the forest, making it nearly impossible to locate the bird from its song alone.

A typical year only sees a handful of new bird species described in scientific journals. But this year has already seen 23 new birds described.

Researchers from the University of Kansas have been involved with three of this year's newly-discovered bird species, and one KU graduate student, Pete Hosner, has co-authored the studies on two of those, including the most recent find: the Sierra Madre Ground-Warbler.

"The ground-warblers are very unique birds," Hosner said. "They're only known from the northern Philippines, and they have no close relatives. As the name suggests, they're ground-walking songbirds - rotund, with strong legs and weak wings - and it appears that they can barely fly. They tend to inhabit dense forest understory, where they feed on insects. Their song is extremely high in pitch, and ventriloquial - it's almost impossible to locate the source of the sound in the forest - they always sound like they are far away, even when they are almost at your feet."

The new species of ground-warbler looks so similar to the other known species of the bird that it has not been recognized as an independent one, said Hosner.

"The three species of ground-warblers now recognized are essentially identical in size, shape and juvenile plumage coloration held in their first year of life, but they differ from one another in adult plumage coloration," Hosner said. "The reason that this new species remained undescribed for so long was that the adult plumage of the very first ground-warbler to be described was unknown. That species, Cordilleran Ground-Warbler, was documented only from a single juvenile until our recent fieldwork. As a result, the 'discovery moment' was when we saw an adult individual of the known species."

Hosner and his colleagues used DNA analysis to determine that the bird was indeed a new species.

"When we noted the different plumage coloration between adult birds in the Cordillera and the Sierra Madre in northern Luzon, we sequenced DNA to determine if the plumage differences were individual variation within a species, or if the two plumage forms were also genetically diagnosable," Hosner said. "We found that Cordillera and Sierra Madre birds were highly divergent in their DNA, almost as different as the distinctive Bicol Ground-Warbler in southern Luzon," the island where the bird was found.

Hosner went on to describe the experience of doing fieldwork in the Philippines jungles:

"We hike out into the forests and establish field camps - usually about two weeks per site -where we survey the birds and other organisms. No electricity, no road noise, just the forest. Usually it's hot, sweaty and dirty work, but we always camp near a stream for a water source, which helps. Sometimes our visits coincide with typhoons, which adds some excitement, especially when you are trying to keep your tent dry. One of the sites where we found the Sierra Madre Ground-Warbler, Mount Cagua, is an active volcano with thermal vents and mud pots."

Photo credit: The University of Kansas

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