For most, the idea of discovering and describing a single new bird to science is a life-defining moment. Yet, in a recent paper published in Science, Frank Rheindt, associate professor at the University of Singapore, and his team describe an incredible 10 new bird taxa (five species and five subspecies) – the largest number of novel bird descriptions from a single geographic locality in more than a century.
They originate from three islands off the east coast of Sulawesi, the largest island in the biodiversity hot-spot of Wallacea. Crucially, the satellite islands of Taliabu, Peleng and the Togian Islands are separated from Sulawesi by deep water. For example, despite being just 12 km from the mainland, Peleng has never been connected to Sulawesi, providing ideal conditions for the speciation processes postulated by Alfred Russel Wallace during his numerous expeditions to the region in the late 19th century.
Having first visited the islands as a doctoral student in 2009, Rheindt, the paper’s lead author, revisited with his team in an expedition from November 2013-January 2014 in order to gather the observations, specimens and sound recordings necessary to provide evidence for his suspicion that the birds he had seen four years prior were novel taxa. Negotiating notoriously difficult Indonesian research permits, hitching rides with empty cargo ships and slumming it on remote mountainsides for days at a time, Rheindt and his team were justly rewarded.