Here comes the sun(bird): Trinity zoologists find new species in Indonesia

25 Oct 2022

A male Wakatobi Sunbird. Image: David Kelly and Nicola Marples/Trinity College Dublin

The study that identified the new bird species in Indonesia has been published in the same journal that printed Charles Darwin’s famous theories in 1858.

A team of Irish and Indonesian zoologists have identified several new and beautiful bird species on remote islands in Indonesia.

One of these is the Wakatobi Sunbird, or Cinnyris infrenatus, which inhabits the tiny Wakatobi islands.

The researchers also found that the more widespread Olive-backed Sunbirds and Black Sunbirds actually belong to multiple unrecognised species. They said the findings have important implications for the understanding of evolution in the biodiverse region.

The study was jointly carried out by researchers from Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences and Universitas Halu Oleo in Indonesia, with support from the Irish Research Council. It was published today (25 October) in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

This historic journal was the first to publish the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace back in 1858. Wallace’s own studies were on the animals across the islands of present-day Indonesia.

“One of Wallace’s major findings is referred to as ‘Wallace’s Line’ – a boundary between deep and shallow seas that many animals have been unable to cross, leading to marked differences in the species found on either side,” explained Fionn Ó Marcaigh, first author on the paper.

“The widespread Olive-backed Sunbird appeared to be an exception, being found all the way from China to Australia with Wallace’s Line right in the middle of its range.”

Ó Marcaigh, who is a PhD candidate in Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, said the new study has been able to show that the populations on either side of the line actually represent two different species – in keeping with Wallace’s original predictions.

“The Black Sunbird was already known to be subject to Wallace’s Line, but the new research has shown that the population around Sulawesi is a separate species from the one in New Guinea,” he added.

Sunbirds largely inhabit the tropical stretch from Africa to Australia and look similar to the American hummingbird. Male sunbirds, including the Wakatobi Sunbird, often have bright plumage and iridescent feathers that shine in the sunlight – giving them their name.

“The identification of the Wakatobi Sunbird serves to remind us that biodiversity is everywhere,” said Dr David Kelly of Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, who is the second author on the paper.

“This bird wasn’t found in a remote rainforest, but along the scrubby margins of busy towns and villages. Let us hope the children of the Wakatobi will be able to enjoy these special birds for generations to come.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic