Skip navigation links

June 1, 2015

Something to crow about

In the past 50 years, approximately 225 new birds have been discovered, more than half of these from South America.

Of these discoveries, Pamela Rasmussen, Michigan State University integrative biologist, is tied for the third-highest total in the world with 10 – and is ranked first for birds discovered in Asia. Only 48 valid new bird species have been described from Asia since 1965. And, since Rasmussen published her first new species in 1998, 96 valid new bird species have been described worldwide, 33 of them from Asia.

Being modest, Rasmussen is quick to point out that in most cases she worked with coauthors, some of whom originally made the discoveries, and her part was to provide the necessary museum data, sound recordings and other scientific data to document the finds. However, when she learned of her high ranking, she was a bit astonished.

“I was glad to see that all of the new species that I’ve been involved with are recognized as valid by all the major checklist authorities,” said Rasmussen, who’s also an assistant curator at the MSU Museum. “To my considerable surprise, I had no idea that I was tied with the top three.”

All of the other scientists who have described as many or more birds than Rasmussen work almost exclusively with South American birds.

The numbers through 2013 can be found in the Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World, which shows how many new species have been described in the last half-century. More were described as species during this period but were later considered to be subspecies or invalid.

To tally the birds described from 2013 to the present, the International Ornithology World Bird List was used as the authority for whether the new birds were still accepted at the species level.

Rasmussen’s 10 birds include:

Notably, most of the new species are small owls from small islands, which are hard to find and study, and bush-warblers that differ from widespread species most obviously in voice.

Rasmussen, the lead author of "Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide,” coordinator of MSU’s global bird sounds website AVoCet and recent Aves Editor for the journal Zootaxa, continues to look for more Asian birds. She travels widely to museums and to the field to obtain the necessary data for this research. In some cases specimens of the new species have actually been sitting in museum trays for many decades, unrecognized and unnamed.

“Describing new bird species to science is a prerequisite to understanding the levels of avian diversity, and this is essential information that allows conservationists to set priorities,” Rasmussen said.

Museum collections hold irreplaceable resources that enable the studies of comparative material and study of scientific name-bearing type specimens that are required for each and every new species description, she added.

“Each new bird species description is the product of hard work by an entire team, whether they are scientists, bird tour leaders, museum collection managers or long-dead bird collectors,” Rasmussen said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with many accomplished, dedicated people on each of these projects. It can’t happen without them or without the museums that preserve examples of our biodiversity.”

By: Layne Cameron