Frank E. Rheindt, researcher of the department of biological sciences of the National University of SingaporeHe traveled to the Wallacea Islands on his own to observe birds. During that 2009 expedition, the scientist discovered new birds that he did not know. Four years later, he went with his team to collect all the information and DNA samples in just six weeks. The results published Thursday in the magazine Science They 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 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 study data. Rheindt says there is more knowledge about birds than about mammals. “But the most curious thing about this work is that we have discovered a lot of birds [cinco especies y cinco subespecies] in a relatively small place that they had never 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 areas 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 separated and the species we have discovered there are totally unique. The conditions of isolation of the environment have accentuated the endemism ”, develops the specialist. Scientists are unaware of the date on which these special birds colonized the space since they do not even have recorded information about the exact age of the islands. “We know only that they are relatively young, 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,” argues Rheindt.
On the other hand, what the researcher can confirm is that the history of these three islands remains incomplete. Collectors of the previous centuries did not enter 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 in altitude, welcomed three collectors who never ventured into the heart of the island. By last, only two observers and bird collectors visited to the smallest one that does not have reliefs of more than 350 meters.
The study assumes that it is for all these elements that nine of the 10 species described come from the heights of more than 800 meters of the islands that were never reached before. “We have discovered a mountain birdlife that has an unusual number of birds that remained completely unknown by history,” says the article Science.
The disappearance of the forest mass
“I will be pessimistic, but I don’t think the species we describe here will 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 already reach the mountains. Birds that live at 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 what happens in Australia. Everything burns, millions of animals die and these events will not stop growing. ” The expert remembers that Taliabu Island suffered, about 20 years ago, the fiercest fires ever seen until today. The forest did not support it and was never the same again.
However, the ornithologist does not believe that we go “towards a world without birds“, because they will survive more than us to all this. “They are very resistant,” the researcher thinks, “but I do think that our children will live in a land with very poor biodiversity, probably with a hundred bird species less than now,” he concludes.
For Toni Gabaldón, researcher of Biomedical Research Institute 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 at a stroke,” he says.
The tracks that Rheindt’s team followed were those of Alfred Russel Wallace. The nineteenth-century expert, then supported by more than 100 contemporary explorers until the world wars, offered a comprehensive overview of the Wallacea collection of birds in the region. “Studying the routes and operations of these historical collectors and identifying the obstacles they had has been a very fruitful approach to accurately determine our areas of observation,” says the study.
The last ornithologists who were on the tallest mountain in Taliabu were, according to the scientists of this expedition, P.J. Davidson and his partner. In 1991 they reached 800 meters where they observed four of the species described in this study, but did not obtain biological material. Peleng also remained unexplored by modern ornithology. “Before our first observation, as far as we know, there were only the occasional excursions of Mochamad Indrawan and his colleagues towards the 1990s and early 2000s,” admits the lead author of the study.