Category: Blog


Published: August 12, 2013

Ornithologists from The Field Museum play major role in discovery and description of new species

John Bates, Curator and Section Head, Life Sciences, Negaunee Integrative Research Center


I adopted the following from something I submitted to the Museum's Science and Education News several weeks ago.  The photo is one of only a handful of specimens of the recently described Tsingy Rail (Canirallus beankaensis) in the world (see below).  It is a roadkilled bird that was obtained by Steve Goodman (given to him in Madagascar) and it will eventually be given to our dermestid beetles for the cleaning necessary for it to be what is probably the only skeleton of this species in the world's museums. 

In the 1970s, it was declared by Ernst Mayr and others that essentially all bird species on earth had been described.  The final volume of the monumental workHandbook of the Birds of the World (HBW), edited by J. Del Hoyo et al. and published by Lynx Edicions (Barcelona, Spain) entitled: Special Volume: New Species and Global Index has just come out, and it offers striking evidence that this is not the case.  The volume contains15 new species’ descriptions of birds from the Amazon Basin edited by Mario Cohn-Haft and Bret Whitney.  This is the largest number of new bird species described at one time from the Americas in 140 years! Field Museum ornithologists and collections figure prominently in many of these discoveries.  Time will tell how these descriptions will be accepted, but this is always the case.  One thing that is certain is that the types of evidence brought to bare in describing these species are greater than ever before.  This is because the expert knowledge base is greater than ever before and because new tools allow us to investigate all aspects from morphology and vocalizations to molecules and ecological niches in more quantitative and comparative ways.  These also are collaborative efforts involving researchers and students from institutions in multiple countries.  Along with Alex Aleixo of the Museu Goeldi in Belém, Brazil and other colleagues, Jason Weckstein and I are co-authors on papers describing Tupana Scythebill (Campylorhamphus gyldenstolpei) and Tapajós Scythebill (Campylorhamphus cardosoi). The DNA sequence data for both of these descriptions were gathered in the Pritzker Laboratory of Molecular Systematics and Evolution. Among the 15 new species, the Aripuana Antbird (Herpsilochmus stotzi) is named in honor of Doug Stotz, who first recognized this bird as distinctive during Field Museum fieldwork in 1986.

The HBW Special Volume also includes species accounts for 69 species that were described after publication of the HBW volume to which they would have belonged.  A number of these 69 new species accounts have connections to The Field Museum’s collections and/or researchers.  In writing up many of the new species, researchers consulted Field Museum collections.  Four were the result of papers by Field Museum staff and graduate students, describing Tsingy Wood-Rail (Canirallus beankaensis, S. Goodman, M. J. Raherilalao, and N. Block), Camiguin Hanging-Parrot (Loriculus camiguinsis, J. Tello, J. Degner, me, and D. Willard), Sira Barbet (Capito fitzpatricki), Seeholzer et al., including B. Winger and J. Weckstein), and Willard’s Sooty Boubou (Laniarius willardi, Voelker, et al. including S. Reddy, me, S. Hackett, C. Kahindo, B. Marks, J. Kerbis Peterhans, and T. P. Gnoske).  As with the two new Scythebills mentioned above, molecular work from the Pritzker Lab was part of three of these descriptions along with detailed comparisons of specimens.  The descriptions of two other new species Bukidnon Woodcock, (Scolopax bukidnonensis) and Camiguin Hawk Owl, (Ninox leventisi) by Bob Kennedy and Pam Rasmussen (Michigan State University) and their colleagues were based on specimens from The Field Museum’s collections that become of the type of these new species.  I collected the type of another species (Madeira Parakeet, Pyrrhura snethlageae) while a graduate student at Louisiana State University.  Taken together, Field Museum ornithologists and collections have played significant roles in the discovery and/or description of 10 new species on three continents and Madagascar since 2001.