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Frank E. Rheindt, a researcher in the department of biological sciences at the National University of Singapore, traveled to the Wallacea Islands on his own to watch birds. During that 2009 expedition, the scientist discovered new birds that he was not aware of. Four years later, he went with his team to collect all the information and DNA samples in just six weeks. The results that are published this Thursday in the magazine Science show that, in the Wallacea Islands of Indonesia (Taliabu, Pegen and Togian), ten unique and hitherto unknown species fly over mountains of up to 1,400 meters that the explorers of other centuries never reached.
I’m going to be pessimistic, but I don’t think the species we describe here will survive more than two decades.
Currently, about 11,000 species of birds are known, according to data from the study. Rheindt says that there is more knowledge about birds than about mammals. “But the most curious thing about this work is that we have discovered a large number of birds [cinco especies y cinco subespecies] on a relatively small site that had never been seen before, ”he details. Two of the islands do not exceed 3,000 square kilometers and the third, no more than 250. Scientists have been able to confirm that they were different families due to genetics and the difference in song.
The number of islands in Indonesia is estimated at 17,508 and most, explains the expert, are surrounded by a sea between 20 and 50 meters deep. However, the water that borders the three fields of the study reaches 120 meters, which implies that they are not connected to the rest. 15,000 years ago, most of the islands of Indonesia were together, the species mixed and reproduced with each other. “However, in this new case, the islands have always been separate and the species that we have discovered there are totally unique. The conditions of isolation from the environment have accentuated endemism ”, the specialist develops. Scientists do not know the date on which these special birds colonized space since they do not even have recorded information about the exact age of the islands. “We only know that they are relatively young, like about two million years old, so we assume that the birds arrived more than a million years ago, but we are still working on it,” Rheindt argues.
On the other hand, what the researcher can confirm is that the history of these three islands remains incomplete. The collectors of previous centuries did not delve into the bowels and altitudes of the region. Taliabu Island has reliefs of up to 1,400 meters, but the scientists, throughout eight historical expeditions, stayed in the coastal areas. Along the same lines, Peleng, which reaches 1,000 meters of altitude, welcomed three collectors who never ventured into the heart of the island. By last, only two bird watchers and collectors visited to the smallest that does not have reliefs of more than 350 meters.
The study assumes that it is because of all these elements that nine of the 10 described species come from the heights of more than 800 meters from the islands that were never reached before. “We have discovered a mountain bird fauna that has an unusual number of birds that remained completely unknown to history”, relates the article by Science.
The disappearance of the forest mass
“I’m going to be pessimistic, but I don’t think the species we describe here are going to survive more than two decades,” says Rheindt. The 10 new families of birds discovered live under two dangers that alarm scientists. First, deforestation. Since the 2000s, according to the researcher, Asian companies have blocked the Taliabu forest and are already reaching the mountains. The birds that live in the altitudes are forced to migrate upwards, but the top is not infinite.
The second threat is climate change. “And the problem there is that we cannot intervene quickly,” he adds, “our planet is in a completely new stage. Just look at what’s going on in Australia. Everything burns, millions of animals die and these events are not going to stop growing ”. The expert recalls that Taliabu Island suffered, some 20 years ago, the fiercest fires ever seen until today. The forest could not bear it and it was never the same again.
However, the ornithologist does not believe that we will go “towards a world without birds”, because they will survive all this longer than us. “They are very resistant”, thinks the researcher, “but I do think that our children will live in a land with a very poor biodiversity, probably with a hundred species of birds less than now”, he concludes.
For Toni Gabaldón, researcher of Institute for Biomedical Research in Barcelona (IRB), this study is very important as it optimizes resources to find new species using the history and experience of naturalists. “Although we seem to know everything, this research shows that we have much to discover. Knowing species and their habitat is crucial to maintain and protect them,” he says. The biologist adds that since they are endemic species, their population is small, and therefore much more vulnerable. “Any impact could eliminate them with a stroke of the pen,” he asserts.
The clues that Rheindt’s team followed were those of Alfred Russel Wallace. The 19th-century expert, then supported by more than 100 contemporary explorers until the world wars, provided a comprehensive overview of Wallacea’s collection of birds from the region. “Studying the routes and operations of these historic collectors and identifying the obstacles they encountered has been a very fruitful approach to accurately determining our areas of observation,” the study says.
The last ornithologists to be on the tallest mountain in Taliabu were, according to the scientists of this expedition, PJ Davidson and his partner. In 1991 they reached 800 meters where they observed four of the species described in this study, but did not get biological material. Peleng also remained unexplored by modern ornithology. “Before our first observation that we know of, there were only the occasional excursions by Mochamad Indrawan and his colleagues back to the 1990s and early 2000s,” admits the study’s lead author.