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Sensational Discovery

New Indian bird species too rare to collect for science

A professional astronomer has made the most sensational ornithological discovery in India for more than half a century. Ramana Athreya has found a new species of bird in remote north-eastern India. The Bugun Liocichla, a kind of babbler, is strikingly coloured. Its overall pluamge is various shades of olive, with a black cap, bright yellow patch in front of eye, golden-yellow, crimson, black and white patches on the wing, and red-tipped tail feathers which are flame-coloured on the underside. Although two Bugun Liocichlas were caught, both were released and no scientific specimen was collected.

[The normal procedure when a new species is described is to preserve a dead individual in a museum as the “type specimen”, which acts as proof both of the species’s existence and of the features that distinguish it from other species. The description of a new bird species without a formal specimen is not without precedent. In 1988 a male bushshrike of an unknown species was trapped in Somalia and later described as the Bulo Burti Boubou Laniarius liberatus. To date it remains the sole example of the species ever recorded.]“We thought the bird was just too rare for one to be killed,” said Ramana. “With today’s modern technology, we could gather all the information we needed to confirm it as a new species. We took feathers and photographs, and recorded the bird’s song.”

Ramana first saw the liocichla at Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh, in 1995, but it was more than a decade before he sighted it again at the same place, whilst carrying out the Eaglenest Biodiversity Project.

[The bird was discovered during the course of the Eaglenest Biodiversity Project, a multi-faceted conservation project led by Athreya in partnership with Mr Indi Glow of the Bugun tribe. The tribe live on the periphery of Eaglenest and one of the project’s goals is to help the Bugun community profit from ecotourism to the area. The project was assisted by grants from the Rufford-Maurice-Laing Foundation (UK) and Ford Foundation/Winrock India.] “Even then I knew it was something very special,” he said. “The only bird that looks remotely like it is the Emei Shan Liocichla, which is known from only a few mountains in central China, more than 1,000 km from Eaglenest.”

But detailed examination of the Eaglenest birds in comparison with specimens and tape recordings of Emei Shan Liocichlas revealed many plumage and vocal differences.

The Bugun Liocichla is only the fourth species of liocichla known, a particular genus within the highly diverse bird family known as babblers or Timaliidae. The other liocichlas are Red-faced Liocichla Liocichla phoenicea, which is widespread in South-East Asia, Emei Shan Liocichla Liocichla omeiensis (sometimes spelled Omei Shan), confined to a few mountains in Central China, and Steere’s Liocichla Liocichla steerii, which occurs only in Taiwan.

Ramana and his project colleagues returned in late January 2005 and again in May 2005 armed with mist-nets, but failed even to see the birds again. Eventually he was successful in trapping two birds in May 2006, and wrote his findings up for the journal Indian Birds. “This is the kind of paper you dream about receiving,”said Aasheesh Pittie, Editor of Indian Birds where the description of the Bugun Liocichla was published. “The discovery of a new bird is really special, but when it’s a stunning species with no geographically close relatives, and in a part of the world where bird collectors have sampled birds for more than a century, it’s nothing short of miraculous.”

Dr Nigel Collar of BirdLife International commented: “I warmly congratulate Ramana on his outstanding discovery and fully support his decision not to collect a specimen at this stage. This species appears to be very rare indeed, and from what we know at present the taking of even one individual could jeopardise the Bugun Liocichla’s future survival prospects.”

The known population of the Bugun Liocichla consists of only 14 individuals including three breeding pairs. The species is not particularly shy and is very distinctive, so it must be very rare or it would certainly have been found earlier.

“It’s good news that the Bugun Liocichla has been found in a wildlife sanctuary where it is already protected, but the population appears to be tiny,” says Collar. “A priority now is to find out if other populations of this remarkable species exist elsewhere and what its habitat requirements are, so that appropriate conservation measures can be put in place.”

4th July 2014