Ornithologists have discovered a new species of berrypecker (genus Melanocharis) in cloud forest in the Kumawa Mountains of western New Guinea (West Papua province, Indonesia), one of the last biologically underexplored regions of the world. The discovery is outlined in a paper in the journal Ibis.
Melanocharis is a small genus of passerine birds in the family Melanocharitidae (the berrypeckers and longbills).
These birds live in the forests of New Guinea and feed on berries and small arthropods.
Until now, the genus contained five species: the mid-mountain berrypecker (Melanocharis longicauda), the black berrypecker (Melanocharis nigra), the streaked berrypecker (Melanocharis striativentris), the fantailed berrypecker (Melanocharis versteri), and the obscure berrypecker (Melanocharis arfakiana).
“The discovery and description of avian diversity across the world remains a major challenge in ornithology,” Dr. Borja Milá, lead author and a researcher at the National Museum of Natural Sciences at the Spanish National Research Council, and his colleagues from Spain, France, Sweden, Czech Republic and Indonesia wrote in their paper.
“Few regions of the world remain as underexplored as the mountainous regions of New Guinea, and the diversity and evolutionary history of its fauna and flora are still poorly known.”
“In 2014 and 2017, we had the opportunity to survey the avifauna in the Bird’s Head Isthmus of western New Guinea, including the relatively unexplored Kumawa Mountains,” they added.
“We first explored the Kumawa Mountains during a short visit in November 2014, during which we were able to survey birds at 1,100-1,200 m above sea level in a mid-montane forest habitat for four days, using mist-nets and visual observations.”
“In the last day of our stay, at an elevation of 1,200 m above sea level, we observed and captured a male bird that we identified as a member of an undescribed taxon in the genus Melanocharis.”
“To further explore this finding and obtain additional specimens, we returned to the Kumawas for a longer expedition in October-November 2017.”
The newly-discovered species, named the satin berrypecker (Melanocharis citreola), is distinct from other members of the genus in plumage coloration, morphological measurements, and genetic markers.
“The satin berrypecker is only the second species to be described in New Guinea in the last 80 years, and represents the first recognized endemic species to the Bird’s Neck region,” the researchers wrote.
“This suggests that very few other species-level undescribed bird taxa may remain to be found on the island, and is a reflection of the thorough surveys that ornithologists before us have carried out across the region with much effort over the last several decades.”
The main characteristics of the satin berrypecker are iridescent blue-black upperparts, satin-white underparts washed lemon yellow, and white outer edges to the external rectrices.
“The new species can be readily assigned to Melanocharis by the stout black bill and iridescent blue-black upper parts contrasting with lighter underparts,” the scientists wrote.
“It can be distinguished from all other members of the genus by the satin-white underparts, washed lemon yellow.”
“It has a white outer vane of the outermost rectrix, compared to the two outermost rectrices in the mid-mountain berrypecker, which is also smaller and has yellowish-gray underparts.”
“The fantailed berrypecker has a longer tail with more extensive white patches on several external rectrices, and gray underparts.”
According to the team’s capture data, the new species appears to be uncommon, but probably not rare, and was captured at the same rate as other species known to be common in the forest despite moderate capture rates in mist-nets.
“Initially thought to represent a close relative of the mid-mountain berrypecker based on elevation and plumage color traits, a complete phylogenetic analysis of the genus based on full mitogenomes and genome-wide nuclear data revealed that the new species is in fact sister to the phenotypically dissimilar streaked berrypecker,” the authors wrote.
“Phylogenetic relationships within the family Melanocharitidae, including all presently recognized genera, reveal that this family endemic to the island of New Guinea diversified during the main uplift of New Guinea in the Middle and Late Miocene (14-6 million years ago), and represents an evolutionary radiation with high disparity in bill morphology and signaling traits across species.”
Borja Milá et al. A new, undescribed species of Melanocharis berrypecker from western New Guinea and the evolutionary history of the family Melanocharitidae. Ibis, published online June 11, 2021; doi: 10.1111/ibi.12981