Texas A&M researchers discover three bird species in African forests

Man holds a box with four bird specimens

Image: Texas A&M AgriLife

A Texas A&M University team has discovered three never before documented bird species, and there could well be more, the team’s leader said.

Gary Voelker, a professor and the curator of birds in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, led the recent discovery of a trio of similar African birds living in close proximity, but are different species sharing no common genes.

Voelker was lead author on an article published recently in the scientific journal Systematics and Biodiversity discussing that discovery.

“The discovery of these three new species is a good example of the amount of potentially hidden diversity living in Afrotropical forests,” Voelker said. “Our evidence runs directly counter to the belief of earlier research that said Afrotropical forests are static places where little evolutionary diversification has occurred. The areas were referred to as ‘museums’ of diversity, meaning they believed because many of the birds look similar across their ranges, then they probably were the same species. That’s a point we are finding not to be true.”

The point of most interest, Voelker said, is that two of the three birds, which all look pretty much alike at first glance, live in close proximity to one another in an area that lacks significant geographic barriers typically associated with the forming of new species. Despite this, the birds don’t share genetic makeup and their appearance is indeed somewhat distinct when closely analyzed.

Voelker described the three new species as forest robins in the genus Stiphrornis; two from West Africa and one from the Congo Basin.

“Each of the three represents a distinct lineage based on our genetic analysis,” he said. “The three are further distinguished from already documented birds in the genus by clear differences in appearance such as wing and tail length and subtle differences in their plumage; one species has a distinctive song as well.”

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