LAWRENCE — Scientists discover precious few new bird species each year — perhaps just a few. So it’s remarkable that bird researchers at the University of Kansas helped discover a bird new to science near Phnom Penh, the densely populated capital of Cambodia. They’ve dubbed it the Cambodian Tailorbird, but it also goes by the scientific name Orthotomus chaktomuk.
“There are really two types of ‘discoveries,’” said Rob Moyle, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and associate curator in the Biodiversity Institute at KU. “Often, scientists know that a bird lives across a certain region, but it hasn’t been appreciated that one population, for instance on an island or mountain, is different enough from the rest to warrant species status. So the bird is not discovered, but its status is changed. Then, there are true discoveries — finding a type of bird that no scientist knew existed. That’s the case with the Cambodian Tailorbird.”
The new find is a small bird with a somewhat long, thin bill. It has a rusty cap, a gray back and lighter underparts, according to the KU researcher.
Moyle and KU doctoral student Carl Oliveros were part of a team of scientists organized by the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society that described the new bird. The KU researchers were recruited for their expertise in tailorbird genetics.
“The bird was discovered by Simon Mahood of the WCS after he saw photos that had been taken of some birds in the field that didn’t really match the description of any known species,” Moyle said. “He spent a lot of time observing the birds and became convinced that they were an undescribed species. He wanted to know how this species might be related to other known species, and the best way to make those comparisons is with DNA sequences. That’s where KU came into the picture. In collaboration with researchers from Louisiana State University, we’d published a genetic study of the known species of tailorbirds in 2012, so Simon approached us to sequence DNA from the new species.”
Because birds are easily visible and charismatic enough to inspire legions of birdwatchers, a new bird discovered in an urban zone like Phnom Penh came as a shock.
“Two factors might have been in play here,” Moyle said. “First, no one looks for new species of bird that close to an urban area, so it was really hiding in plain sight. Also, unrest in southeast Asia, and Cambodia in particular, precluded much scientific exploration for decades.”
Moyle, who uses genetic data to study the diversity of birds, focusing on Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said that the find showed that new bird species could pop up in unexpected places.
“I wouldn't expect too many of them in cities,” he said. “But the Cambodian Tailorbird has demonstrated that we still know relatively little about the natural world.”
A small piece of muscle tissue from a voucher specimen of the bird was enough to sequence its DNA in a new lab at KU and determine its relationship to other bird species.
“DNA alone can rarely determine species status,” said Moyle. “Instead, it is used to determine the relationship of the putative new species to other species, which tells us the closest relatives that need to be considered. In the case of the Cambodian Tailorbird, the species that is closest genetically is very different in appearance. Species that look most similar turn out to be more distant relatives — supporting the case for species status.”
The DNA was sequenced in newly expanded and renovated molecular systematics labs in Dyche Hall on KU’s main campus. These state-of-the-art labs were opened last year, funded by a large grant from the National Science Foundation, along with support from the university and private donors. Several faculty and dozens of graduate students rely on them for research projects, including reconstructing the evolutionary relationships of diverse groups of plants and animals, sequencing ancient DNA from old museum specimens and identifying the genetic mechanisms behind morphological traits.
Asked if KU would have a hand in describing other new species in the future, Moyle thought it was likely.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Stay tuned.”