After more than 170 years, locals in Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia have helped rediscover the lost black-browed babbler. The bird has been missing since it was first described and collected by western scientists around 1848. Since then, the trail to find the bird has gone cold despite several attempts to find the species, leaving scientists in the dark about its ecology, population and behavior. Many feared the species may be extinct. The rediscovery was published in Oriental Bird Club’s journal BirdingASIA, today, Feb. 24.
Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan rediscovered the elusive black-browed babbler in October 2020 during a weekly trip to gather forest products in Southern Kalimantan Province, Borneo. After accidentally capturing a bird, which neither recognized, they took some photos and then released it unharmed back to the forest. They sent the photos to the local birdwatching group BW Galeatus in hopes they would be able to identify it.
The group suspected it may be the black-browed babbler and immediately contacted ornithologists Panji Gusti Akbar, Teguh Willy Nugroho and Ding Li Yong, who compared the photos taken in Southern Kalimantan to a current field guide description and photos of the only known black-browed babbler specimen at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands.
“It was a bit like a ‘Eureka!’ moment,” said Gusti Akbar, of the Indonesian bird conservation group Birdpacker and lead author of the paper. “This bird is often called ‘the biggest enigma in Indonesian ornithology.’ It’s mind-blowing to think that it’s not extinct and it’s still living in these lowland forests, but it’s also a little scary because we don’t know if the birds are safe or how much longer they may survive.”
The new photos of a live black-browed babbler immediately yielded new information about the species. Scientists now have a better understanding of the true coloration of the species. The babbler’s iris, bill and leg were slightly different colors than the original specimen, but the difference was not surprising to scientists, since those areas often lose their tint and are artificially colored during the taxidermy process.
The rediscovery is helping scientists and conservationists answer questions that have been swirling for more than 100 years. Scientists had never been sure where the bird lived in the wild. The original and only specimen collected by German geologist and naturalist Carl A.L.M. Schwaner sometime between 1843 and 1848, and described by Charles Lucien Bonaparte in 1850, was initially mislabeled and described as being from Java. In 1895, naturalist Johann Büttikofer found that the specimen could not have been from Java because Schwaner had not collected any birds on the island. After reviewing and scrutinizing records of Schwarner’s travel in Indonesia, scientists speculated that he may have found the bird near the city of Martapura or Banjarmasin in Borneo.
“I think it is amazing that we managed to document one of the most remarkable zoological discoveries in Indonesia, largely through online communication, in the midst of the pandemic, which has hampered us from visiting the site,” said Teguh Willy Nugroho, who works in Sebangau National Park in Kalimantan and is one of the coauthors on the paper.
Due to COVID-19 safety precautions, scientists have not been able to travel to the area where the black-browed babbler was found, but they are working on a second paper to document its ecology and are hoping to work with local government agencies to plan expeditions later this year.
“When the species was first discovered, now-extinct birds like the great auk and passenger pigeon were still alive,” said Yong, a co-author on the paper and a Singapore-based conservationist with BirdLife International. “There is now a critical window of opportunity for conservationists to secure these forests to protect the babbler and other species.”
Scientists know very little about the black-browed babbler, but the Indonesian authors of the paper are hoping to work with local government agencies to quickly change that. They plan to travel to Borneo to identify exactly where the black-browed babbler lives, interview locals, study the babbler’s behavior and assess their population, which could be used to recommend a new status on the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. The bird is currently listed as data deficient and scientists are hoping to determine if and to what extent the species is threatened with extinction.
“Discoveries like this are incredible and give us so much hope that it’s possible to find other species that have been lost to science for decades or longer,” said Barney Long, Re:wild’s (formerly Global Wildlife Conservation) senior director of species conservation and lead on Re:wild’s Search for Lost Species program. “Collaborations between conservationists, local communities and Indigenous peoples are crucial to learning about and saving these elusive species.”
There are more than 1,600 species of birds that live across the Indonesian archipelago. Scientists are hoping that the discovery may rekindle interest in surveying birds in under-researched areas. Re:wild and American Bird Conservancy, BirdLife International and eBird are working to mount searches for lost birds around the world.
# # #
Caption: A black-browed babbler accidentally caught in Kalimantan, Borneo. It was the first confirmed sighting of the species in more than 170 years. The bird was released unharmed back to the forest after the photo was taken. (Photo courtesy of Birdpacker)
There are more than 150 species of birds around the world that are currently ‘lost’ with no confirmed observations in the past 10 years. American Bird Conservancy, Re:wild, BirdLife International and eBird are working together to help find these species. Hopefully, the rediscovery of the black-browed babbler will spark interest in finding other lost bird species in Asia and around the world.—John C. Mittermeier, director of threatened species outreach, American Bird Conservancy
Re:wild Re:wild is on a mission to protect and restore the wild. We have a singular and powerful focus: the wild as the most effective solution to the interconnected climate, biodiversity and pandemic crises. Founded by Leonardo DiCaprio alongside a group of renowned conservation scientists, Re:wild is a force multiplier that brings together Indigenous peoples, local communities, influential leaders, nongovernmental organizations, governments, corporations and the public to protect and rewild at the scale and speed we need. Re:wild launched in 2021 based on more than three decades of combined conservation impact of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and Global Wildlife Conservation, leveraging expertise, partnerships and platforms under one unified brand, bringing new attention, energy and voices together. Our vital work has protected and conserved over 12 million acres benefitting more than 16,000 species in the world’s most irreplaceable places for biodiversity. We don’t need to reinvent the planet. We just need to rewild it—for all wildkind. Learn more at rewild.org.
American Bird Conservancy ABC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving wild birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. With an emphasis on achieving results and working in partnership, we take on the greatest problems facing birds today, innovating and building on rapid advancements in science to halt extinctions, protect habitats, eliminate threats, and build capacity for bird conservation. Find us on abcbirds.org, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@ABCbirds).