Where did it go? Extinct bird appears after 173 years!

This rare bird has not been seen on Borneo since 1848.

It looks a bit weak and unhealthy, but that is probably because it has just been in the researchers’ nets. But this is what the little bird, which has not been seen for 173 years, looks like. It’s no bigger than a banknote and has black, grey and brown colours.
The bird is now healthy, and set free in the rainforest again;-)

On the world’s third-largest island, Borneo, the rainforest is in many places so dense and impassable that very few people get there.

Although large parts of the rainforest have been felled today, there are still areas where only the large rivers allow people to travel to the inner part of the island.

Therefore, it is perhaps not so strange that a bird that scientists thought had been extinct for about 173 years has now reappeared.

The bird, which is called a “Black-browed Babbler”, was discovered between 1843 and 1848 by a German naturalist. He then caught the bird and had it stuffed.


It is originally called “Napoleon’s nephew”.

After the bird was stuffed in the 1840s, it was brought back to Europe, where Napoleon’s nephew Charles Lucien Bonaparte studied it.

Charles Lucien Bonaparte was a highly respected biologist and ornithologist. During his career, he studied and named more than 400 species and subspecies of birds.

And so also this rare little bird.

Since then, however, the bird never reappeared – and it has therefore been called the greatest mystery of Indonesian ornithology.

Scientists do not know much about this bird, and therefore it is called one of the largest enigmas in that part of the world. There only exists that one stuffed bird that was found 170 years ago.

However, the bird has never been seen since and was the only known specimen of the species. Therefore, many scientists thought it was extinct.

Last October, two local researchers from Borneo came across a bird they had never seen before. They captured it, took pictures of it and shared the pictures in bird watching groups. Together, the bird acquaintances came to the conclusion that it must be a spectacled thrush.

It’s absolutely amazing when such a bird shows up. There is only one specimen from which the bird is described and that is why ornithologists know extremely little about it.

Now that it has been seen again, birdwatchers will most likely flock to the area in hopes of seeing it as well. 

The bird has been found on the Indonesian part of Borneo (marked in red). Borneo is divided into three countries. The southern part belongs to Indonesia, the northeastern part to Malaysia and the last part to the independent country Brunei. 


The bird’s habitat is being felled

Once upon a time, nearly 80% of Borneo was covered by warm, humid rainforest.

The rainforest is home to a myriad of animal and plant species – and the island is considered one of the places in the world with the greatest biodiversity.

The island’s high, mountainous and inaccessible areas mean that a lot of unique species have adapted to life here and are not found anywhere else in the world. For example, the orangutan.

Unfortunately, the rainforest is being felled at an enormous pace and replaced with plantations filled with palm trees for palm oil production. And it can be the death knell for bird species like this.

Palm oil plantations, where it gets completely dark at the bottom, are the death of any forest bird. They cannot survive in such a uniform monoculture.

When the bird has not been seen for more than 170 years, however, it is not only because of the dense and inaccessible rainforests. Felling the rainforest means that there may be only a few specimens of the bird left.

This bird lives in the lowland rainforest, and more and more of that type of forest is being felled to plant palm trees for the production of palm oil. Its habitats are disappearing fast, and therefore there are probably not many of them left.

Indonesia is also a country where, as a researcher, it is difficult to get permission to travel and study wildlife. It is a long process that costs a lot of money to get permission to collect animals in Indonesia.  First permits have to be obtained in the capital Jakarta, then regionally and last but not least locally. That is why many researchers choose to research places where it is easier to get permission.


Like finding a needle in a haystack

Even if you succeed in getting the permit, you still have to be extremely lucky to find the bird.

It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. Even on a month-long expedition, you can only explore two or three areas that are a few kilometres apart. In other words, it will be a needle-stick operation on a giant island like Borneo.

When researchers have to find and describe new or rarely seen species, they hang a number of large nets up in the jungle, which they hope the bird will fly in.

The nets are typically ten meters long and three meters high and made in such a way that the bird is stuck if it flies in the net. But because the bird is stuck, the researchers have to check the nets every half-hour so that the birds are not harmed. Therefore, it is limited how many nets an expedition can set up.


More knowledge about the mystery bird in the future

Due to the fact that the bird has now been seen again, we will learn more about it in the coming years.

The two specimens of the bird that have been found were both adults. We, therefore, have no idea what the kids look like.

No one knows if they have a different colour or how they are built. In fact, we do not even know the sounds of the bird when it sings. And we have no idea what it lives on.

With virtually all animal species, it is very likely that they specialize in going for a particular type of food and live in a very specific place. This is also called the animal’s niche. But with the bird here, scientists simply have no idea how it fits into the ecosystem of the rainforest.

There are probably very few of them left, so the more scientists know, the greater the chance that we can save it before it is completely eradicated.


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