When One Becomes Three

When it comes to a new discovery, there will always be someone out there who will find it extremely exciting, regardless of whether you do.  It could be the finding of a new fossil, a new burial ground or an ancient settlement, but there are always those individuals who will be more than eager to learn more. My father finds discoveries and differences in oceanic gas exchanges exciting. Me? Not so much. But, if you’re anything like me, what you will find exciting is the discovery of a new species, and not just any old species, a new species of bird! For in the depths of the forests of northern Indian and China, the Himalayan forest thrush has just been discovered and named.



But how did this come about? Where did this little bird appear from? Did he just leap from the bush one day and parade himself around in front of unsuspecting ornithologists, making it quite clear that such a specimen had never been seen by the human eye before? Sadly, no. In fact, the discovery was much more subtle. Scientists carrying out fieldwork in the mountains actually discovered the bird as a result of his song, finding that it was far more musical than the song of those thrushes found on the rocky outcrops and peaks above the treeline. With the seed of suspicion planted, further research uncovered both physical and genetic differences in these birds. The species, which was once known collectively as the plain-backed thrush, is now distinguishable as two different species. Those found in the mountains are now classed as the alpine thrush, whilst those in the forests, as aforementioned, the Himalayan forest thrush.

This is an exciting discovery as it is only the fourth species of bird to be discovered in India since 1947. So, statistically speaking, in another 17 years or so, we may find another (maybe that’s just a bit optimistic). Professor Alstrom, one of the leading research scientists based at Uppsala University in Sweden worked with a large team of researchers, who reported their finding to the journal of Avian research. But what of that all important latin name? May I introduce Zoothera salimalii. Named after the late Indian Ornithologist Dr Salim Ali. Professor Alstrom explained the thinking behind this name, stating that:
“He did a lot of work on Indian birds and has been really important for bird conservation and knowledge about birds in India.”

orientalbirdimages.org.uk Alpine Thrush

Alpine Thrush

So, what’s the difference between these two species? Well, to the naked eye, the forest thrush is shorter in both the legs and tail when compared to its alpine relative. Surprisingly, it has taken 17 years for this discovery to be confirmed, with the first recognition of different songs occurring in 1999! Those birds who lived in habitat above the tree line were known to sing harsh, scratchy songs, whilst those in the forest were far more musical and tuneful. It was apparent to researchers that there was a difference, but due to a lack of difference in plumage and body structure, they were unsure of the magnitude of this difference. In addition, the forest thrush is known to be highly secretive and consequently, very difficult to get a look at. But, never disheartened, this did not stop our scientists. In fact, research began to compare birds from India and China with those specimens contained in museums. DNA analysis took place and confirmed that the species were in fact separate.

It is believed, that like many species, the two birds were originally one species, which then branched off into different habitats, where they then evolved to cope with their different environmental conditions. The alpine thrush for example, needs longer legs for the more open mountain habitats, whilst the forest thrush does not. As it is thought to be the original species, the alpine thrush will retain the original scientific name of Zoothera mollissima. But our tale of discovery doesn’t end there. During fieldtrips to other areas of China, research also discovered that a thrush population, originally considered as a sub-species of the plain-backed thrush, is also it’s own separate species. Therefore, due to its genetical distinction, the Sichuan forest thrush has now also been introduced, or Zoothera griseiceps.

So, one species becomes three! It’s been quite a day for those bird lovers out there. I think we need a lie down in a dark room.

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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