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Professor discovers new bird species in Chile

Professor discovers new bird species in Chile

Professor discovers new bird species in Chile
September 17
08:00 2022

The university’s Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program, along with international collaborators, recently discovered a new bird species in the Diego Ramírez Archipelago the southernmost point in Chile before crossing the sea to Antarctica — according to a press release.

The bird, named the Subantarctic Rayadito or Aphrastura subantarctica, was previously thought to be the same species as others in its genus before the SABCP’s team noticed substantial differences. 

“The tail — shorter,” SABCP research director Ricardo Rozzi said. ” The beak — stronger and longer. The weight — 50 percent larger. So, morphologically, it’s a different bird.”

Rozzi is a university professor of philosophy and religion and has studied the Subantarctic Rayadito for six years. He first noticed the new species when it created a habitat underneath the grey-headed albatross’ nest in Chile. Despite the small bird immediately piquing his interest, he was not able to study it right away due to his then ongoing research on the albatross. He promised himself he would investigate the rayadito as soon as he could.  

Other key differences, in addition to appearance, were the bird’s genetic makeup and behavioral patterns. The Subantarctic Rayadito travels by short and low flights between long grasses and eats crustacea from the shore, in contrast to the rayaditos found in forests and shrublands. The new species also tended to nest at lower altitudes.

“Today, nothing goes in biology if you don’t do genetics,” Rozzi said. “We started with the genetics of the nucleus, and it was different, however not enough. We didn’t know when that evolution that differentiation happened.”  

Rozzi and his team took it further, investigating the bird’s mitochondria to figure out how long ago the rayadito’s traits changed. This led Rozzi to conclude this new species of rayadito was not new at all. They had simply gone unnoticed after a small rayadito population made their way to the Diego Ramírez Archipelago and evolved new traits to better fit the environment.  

“Today, the world is burning, literally,” Rozzi said. “We’re losing biodiversity, and suddenly, there is still a corner there that we have the opposite phenomenon creation of life by the forces of evolution.” 

The SABCP is run both by the University of North Texas and the University of Magallanes in Chile with a focus on preserving both cultural diversity and species diversity. Its belief is that the two are naturally linked and inseparable.  

“It’s a recognition that ecosystems do not exist in isolation from human systems,” said Andrew Gregory, assistant professor in conservation biology and SABCP faculty member. “The biocultural conservation center is an effort to understand that coupling and to make conservation plans that explicitly take that reality into account.”  

Ramiro Crego, a university alumnus and postdoctoral researcher, was part of the team researching the new species. Crego helped examine the bird’s morphology, determining what parts of the Subantarctic Rayadito set it apart from other species.

“This work shows us that there’s still so much more to uncover in this world, so many natural mysteries that we still do not know,” Crego said in the press release. “One of the most important lessons I learned during my time there was the value of interdisciplinary research.”  

After finding all the differences they needed, Rozzi’s team submitted a scientific report on their findings, undergoing a critical process of peer review to get the species officially recognized. The article was published on Scientific Reports on Aug. 26.

“We studied only the morphology and the behavior of the little bird because we were focusing on the albatrosses,” Rozzi said. “But once the task was done, we put the effort into genetics of the rayadito. And a week ago, or something like that, we have a new species of bird.” 

Image credit: Omar Barroso

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Owen Davis

Owen Davis

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