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Long-Lost Babbler Bird Documented in Borneo for the First Time in Over 170 Years

The animal was last recorded between 1843 and 1848, when a scientist collected the first and only museum specimen

Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan captured a black-browed babbler in October 2020, took photos of it for identification, and released it safely. (Photo by M. Suranto)
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When Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan trekked into the South Kalimantan rainforest in Borneo, they sometimes spotted a black and brown bird darting between the trees. They couldn’t identify it, so they captured one of the birds and sent photos of it to a local birdwatching group, BW Galeatus.

One member of the group, Joko Said Trisiyanto, matched the bird’s markings to the black-browed babbler, which was listed in his guidebook as possibly extinct. He sent the photos to ornithologist Panji Gusti Akbar, who passed the photos along to several other experts, Rachel Nuwer reports for the New York Times. After the initial shock faded, experts agreed: it was indeed a black-browed babbler, the longest-lost species in Asia that hadn’t been recorded in over 170 years. The rediscovery is detailed in the journal BirdingASIA.

“It just blew my mind,” says Akbar to MongaBay’s Elizabeth Claire Alberts. “We suspect that this bird might actually have been around this area for quite a long time. It’s just that there is nobody coming to see them … nobody who knows how to identify birds.”

Indonesia is a hotspot for bird diversity, with more than 1,700 species across the archipelago, and ten new species and subspecies discovered last year on the islands of Taliabu, Peleng and Batudaka, Patrick Barkham reports for the Guardian.

The black-browed babbler was first identified by German naturalist Carl Schwaner at some point between 1843 and 1848, but the specimen that he collected was labeled as coming from the island of Java. The problem is, Schwaner didn’t collect any specimens on Java. In 1895, another naturalist corrected the record, using Schwaner’s records to conclude the bird was probably collected in Borneo. The specimen is now housed at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands, and serves as the black-browed babbler holotype—a species-defining reference specimen.

“This sensational finding confirms that the black-browed babbler comes from south-eastern Borneo, ending the century-long confusion about its origins,” says Akbar, who is the lead author of the new paper, to the Guardian.

The new photos also show that the bird’s legs, bill and iris color differ slightly from the taxidermized museum specimen. The museum specimen had yellow glass eyes and light brown legs and bill, but the photographs of the live bird showed red eyes and darker legs and bill.

“We’re now seeing this bird alive for the first time in all of its natural glory,” says BirdLife International conservationist Ding Li Yong, a co-author on the new paper, to the Guardian. “Borneo is an island of surprises, and there’s a lot to still be discovered and learned.”

The birdwatching group in Indonesian Borneo formed in 2016 and has worked with local communities to teach them about the region’s avian diversity, reports the New York Times. Before this discovery, the black-browed babbler was considered the biggest enigma in Indonesian ornithology.

“It feels surreal to know that we have found a species of bird presumed by experts to be extinct,” said Rizky Fauzan to the Guardian. “We didn’t expect it to be that special at all – we thought it was just another bird that we simply have never seen before.”

Ornithologist Teguh Willy Nugroho, who works in Sebangau National Park and is co-author of the paper, notes in a statement that the discovery is especially exciting because it was accomplished through online communication amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The Indonesian co-authors of the paper hope to conduct fieldwork soon to get a clear understanding of the bird’s behavior and population. They worry it may be at risk from poaching and habitat loss.

“This is a really big deal for Indonesian ornithology — as shocking as rediscovering the passenger pigeon or Carolina parakeet,” two now-extinct species that were alive when the babbler was first identified, says Yong to the New York Times. “But this is closer to home, a bird from the part of the world I live in.”

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