Phnom Pehn Has 1.5 Million People, And One Bird Scientists Had Never Seen Before

This bird was distinguished by differences in coloring and by its faster and more complicated song

The Cambodian tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk)

Lonely Planet describes the Cambodian capital city of Phnom Penh as “an assault on the senses.” The New York Times mentions its rising skyscrapers and the influx of foreign money pouring into this swiftly urbanizing city. And amidst all this hustle and bustle, scientists just found a species of bird previously unknown to science.

Scientists first noticed the Cambodian tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk) in 2009, while they were sampling birds for avian influenza. They were on the lookout for birds that might have symptoms of the disease (which has already killed at least 8 people in Cambodia this year), when they found a small grey wren-like bird with an orange cap. At first they thought it was a familiar species, but after taking a closer look, the scientists realized that they had found an entirely new type of bird.

This bird was distinguished by differences in coloring and by its faster and more complicated song. From the paper:

The specific epithet chaktomuk is a Khmer word meaning ‘four faces’. It is used in reference to the low-lying area at which the Tonle Sap, Bassac and Mekong rivers come together to form an centred on Phnom Penh, itself historically known as Krong Chaktomuk (literally City of Four Faces). Based on current knowledge, the global distribution of the new species is restricted to scrub within the dynamic floodplain created by the confluence of these waters.

The scrub they are talking about is intensely dense vegetation, nearly impossible for humans to get through. In order to even observe the birds, the scientists had to play recordings of the bird’s song to lure them into the open.

From the press release:

Only tiny fragments of floodplain scrub remain in Phnom Penh, but larger areas persist just outside the city limits where the Cambodian Tailorbird is abundant. The authors say that the bird’s habitat is declining and recommend that the species is classified as Near Threatened under the IUCN’s Red List. Agricultural and urban expansion could further affect the bird and its habitat. However, the bird occurs in Baray Bengal Florican Conservation Area, where WCS is working with local communities and the Forestry Administration to protect the Bengal florican and other threatened birds.

“The modern discovery of an un-described bird species within the limits of a large populous city – not to mention 30 minutes from my home – is extraordinary,” said Mahood. “The discovery indicates that new species of birds may still be found in familiar and unexpected locations.”

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