For the first time since 1974, ornithologists have discovered a new bird species in the United States. The small Hawaiian seabird, thought to be an undersized Boyd’s shearwater, proved to have enough unique genetic traits to separate it from the other species. Researchers and avian enthusiasts are thrilled by the discovery.
“Itís very unusual to discover a new species of bird these days and especially gratifying when DNA can confirm our original hypothesis that the animal is unique,” Rob Fleischer, of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, said in a press release. “This bird is unique, both genetically and in appearance, and represents a novel, albeit very rare, species.”
Ornithologist Peter Pyle found the new species in a stuffed collection while conducting research in Honolulu’s B.P. Bishop Museum. The specimen had been collected during the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program in 1963, tagged as a little Boyd’s shearwater and set aside until it attracted Pyle’s attention. Pyle noticed that the preserved specimen had unusually small wings and short tail feathers. His observations led to the subsequent genetic analysis.
Dubbed Bryan’s shearwater (Puffinus bryani) after the museum’s curator, the bird is black and white with a black or dark blue-gray bill and blue-gray legs. DNA evidence suggests that Bryan’s shearwater may have branched off from other species of shearwaters as far back as 2 million years ago. However, little else is currently known about the petite seabird because scientists have yet to encounter a live specimen.
Unfortunately, this means that the new species may be very rare or even extinct, but experts are optimistic. According to Pyle, other varieties of shearwaters are known to be fairly elusive and scientists can’t predict where they breed. Individual seabirds have also been known to fly great distances from their existing colonies to “scout” for new breeding ground. Since no one has been looking for Bryan’s shearwater until now, the species could be living almost anywhere in the Pacific Ocean basin.
Wired Science reports that a second specimen may have been tagged and recorded on Midway in 1990, and sightings of small, unidentified seabirds have been periodically reported from California, Japan and the southern Gulf of Alaska. Hopefully, the official declaration of this new species will increase vigilance among coastal birdwatchers. For now, Bryan’s shearwater remains a small, winged mystery.
Image credit: Lovelorn Poets (Creative Commons)