In 2009, a group of birders noticed a tiny, gray bird feeding on mistletoe in the canopy of a tropical forest in Borneo. The creature’s short bill and stout body were characteristic of the flowerpecker family that populates the island and much of Southeast Asia. But the distinctive white arcs around its eyes were unfamiliar, earning the bird some extra acclaim and a working name: Spectacled Flowerpecker. Still, for the next decade, the bird’s status would remain as “undescribed.”
Over the years, scientists and birdwatchers occasionally glimpsed the Spectacled Flowerpecker, but without close study they could not declare it a new species. This past March, Chris Milensky and Jacob Saucier of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History were conducting a bird diversity survey of the Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary when a Spectacled Flowerpecker flew into their mistnet.
The survey, in collaboration with Malaysia’s Sarawak Forestry Corporation, was meant to document the bird species living in the sanctuary, which was miles from past Spectacled Flowerpecker sightings. “We both realized what it could be right away,” says Saucier, a museum specialist. “But there was some skepticism there. We didn’t want to get too excited.”
After ruling out the possibility that the discovery might be too good to be true—the scientists had to be certain that the bird’s muted plumage wasn’t simply a normal variation within a known species—Milensky and Saucier realized that they had the rare chance to formally describe a new species of bird. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. On the island of Borneo, it has been more than 100 years since an entirely new species of bird revealed itself to researchers.
The Spectacled Flowerpecker had proved an elusive species to classify because of its preference for the forest canopy, notes Johannes Fischer, a PhD candidate at Victoria University of Wellington. Fischer co-authored the first record of the Spectacled Flowerpecker in 2016 but was not affiliated with the latest study. “What makes the Spectacled Flowerpecker truly unique . . . is that its existence was documented in several countries across Borneo before officially being described,” Fischer writes in an email. “For a decade the Spectacled Flowerpecker has eluded description, keeping a sense of wonder and mystery alive in this modern world.”
Milensky, collection manager of birds at the Natural History Museum, says the Spectacled Flowerpecker is a “little, tiny thing” that is extremely difficult to spot from the ground. In fact, its name is perhaps a fancier one than it deserves. The unobtrusive little bird is drab in color, stands no more than two inches tall and has just the faintest of white markings—its spectacles—around its eyes. Past sightings have almost exclusively occurred on canopy walkways, thanks to the recent new form of ecotourism that allows bird enthusiasts to view at eye level creatures that hang out at the top of the tree canopy. What’s more, the Spectacled Flowerpecker primarily feeds on a specific type of mistletoe, so its distribution depends on where and when the fruit is in bloom. Their discovery came down to being at the right place at the right time, Saucier says.
A close examination of the bird yielded information about its diet and role in the forest ecosystem. Its semi-tubular tongue, a hallmark of the flowerpecker genus, allows the bird to drink nectar but is also wide enough for mistletoe seed consumption. Quentin Phillipps, co-author of Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, says Borneo is a “world center of diversity for both flowerpeckers and mistletoe.” Because flowerpeckers eat the mistletoe’s fruit and disperse its seeds, the bird and the plant are ecologically intertwined.
The scientific description of the Spectacled Flowerpecker, named Dicaeum dayakorum to honor the indigenous Dayak people who protect Borneo’s forests, was published today in the journal Zootaxa. A sample of the bird’s DNA confirmed that not only is the species new to science, but it is also genetically distinct from other known species of flowerpecker. In fact, Saucier says the Spectacled Flowerpecker’s closest relative is the original ancestor of all other species of Dicaeum, suggesting that the newly described bird has been living on the island in anonymity for a long time.
For Milensky and Saucier, finding a new species is inextricably tied to conservation of its habitat. The Spectacled Flowerpecker is likely endemic to Borneo, meaning that it has not been spotted anywhere else in the world. Saucier says the lowland forests where the newly discovered bird thrives are disappearing due to unsustainable agriculture practices and illegal logging. Knowledge of the Spectacled Flowerpecker’s ecological preferences provides yet another reason to preserve the island’s forests.
Milensky says the discovery of the Spectacled Flowerpecker reflects the boundless biodiversity of the Bornean forests. “Birds are pretty well-studied compared to other organisms, so whenever you find a new bird, you realize just how little you know. Who knows how many insects and invertebrates and other things are still left to be discovered in these forests?” he says. “There are so many other organisms out there that we certainly don't even know about, that really do require habitat preservation.”