A bird specimen that sat in a drawer at the Smithsonian for nearly 50 years has been revealed to be a totally new species to science, the first in the United States for 37 years.
The discovery of the true identity of the bird was thanks to a sharp-eyed scientist at the Institute for Bird Populations (IBP), who realized that the specimen had been misidentified after it was collected on Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 1963. Differences in measurements and physical appearance compared to other similar species were confirmed by DNA analysis, and the bird was given the name Bryan’s Shearwater, Puffinus bryani.
“I was doing research for a book I was working on, dealing with birds of Hawai’i when I came across this particular specimen of a seabird that was identified as a Little Shearwater. After examining the specimen, I knew that what I was looking at was not a Little Shearwater or anything else that occurred in the Pacific basin. Ultimately, I decided we needed to do the DNA testing, which determined that we had a completely new species,” said Peter Pyle, the IBP researcher who made the discovery.
Researchers rarely discover new species of birds, most of the world’s 9,000-plus species (including about 21 other species of shearwaters) having been described before 1900. The majority of new species described since the mid-1900s have been discovered in remote tropical rain- and cloud forests, primarily in South America and southeastern Asia.
The Bryan’s Shearwater is the first new species to be described from the United States and Hawaiian Islands since the Po’ouli was discovered in the forests of Maui in 1974. The Bryan’s Shearwater is the smallest shearwater known to exist. It is black and white with a black or blue-gray bill and blue legs. Biologists found the species in a burrow among a colony of petrels during the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program in 1963.
The Bryan’s Shearwater is closest in morphology to the Boyd’s Shearwater, which is found in the Atlantic Ocean, but is more genetically distinct than all its other shearwater cousins. Based on this DNA evidence, researchers estimate that the Bryan’s Shearwater separated from other species of shearwaters perhaps more than 2 million years ago. These findings have been published in a paper, A new species of Shearwater (Puffinus) recorded from Midway Atoll, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, in the current issue of the scientific journal The Condor.
Researchers do not know where Bryan’s Shearwaters breed today. According to Pyle, shearwaters and other seabirds often visit nesting burrows on remote islands only at night, and researchers have not discovered the breeding locations of many populations. Individual seabirds from colonies also often “prospect” for new breeding locations, often far from existing colonies. Bryan’s Shearwater could conceivably breed anywhere in the Pacific Ocean basin or even farther afield.
“We don’t believe that Bryan’s Shearwaters breed regularly on Midway or other Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, based on the extensive seabird work in these islands by biologists with the Pacific Seabird Project,” Pyle said. The specimen was the only observation during this extensive project, which occurred on islands and atolls throughout the North Pacific from 1963 until 1968. “They would almost certainly have encountered more Bryan’s shearwaters then and since if they bred regularly in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.”
Given that Bryan’s shearwaters have remained undiscovered until now, they could be very rare. It is sadly even possible that they went extinct before ever being recognized, although there is at least one more record of a bird in a burrow on Midway from 1990, and observations at sea of what could be Bryan’s Shearwaters as recently as 2005.
“If we can find where this species breeds, we may have a chance to protect it and keep it from going extinct,” said Andreanna Welch, who works for The Smithsonian and is the co-author of the paper on the new species. “Genetic analysis allows us to investigate whether an animal represents an entirely different species, and that knowledge is important for setting conservation priorities and preventing extinction.”
“American Bird Conservancy is not opposed to the judicious collection of specimens for scientific reasons, we oppose the collection of endangered species. If this bird had been found today, the data needed could have been obtained using digital imagery and DNA sampling on the live bird,” said ABC Vice President Mike Parr.
Bryan’s shearwater is named after Edwin Horace Bryan Jr., who was curator of collections at the B.P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu from 1919 until 1968.