The fragmented forests of the highest ranges of the Western Ghats have revealed a secret that is music to the ears of naturalists. Researchers exploring these “sky islands” have designated two new endemic genera and a new species of songbird.
The research published in the latest issue of BMC Evolutionary Biology was undertaken by V. V. Robin; Sushma Reddy; C .K. Vishnudas; Pooja Gupta; Frank E. Rheindt; Daniel M. Hooper and Uma Ramakrishnan.
The team has designated two new genera, the Western Ghats shortwings as Sholicola (closely related to flycatchers) and the laughing thrushes as Montecincla (closely related to babblers. The newly described Sholicola ashambuensis is confined to the Agasthyar Malai mountain ranges.
The species in the Montecincla genera include Montecincla jerdoni , Montecincla cachinnans , Montecincla fairbanki and Montecincla meridionalis belongs to Montecincla genus. Sholicola major and Sholicola albiventris belongs to Sholicola genus.
‘Though many people had noted some differences in feather patterns across populations in different mountain tops or “sky islands”, they were still considered a single species. It wasn’t until we had genetic data that we realised the traditional story was wrong,’ said Mr. Robin.
The taxonomy of the birds also posed a challenge to the researchers. What used to be called Western Ghats shortwings are actually flycatchers, and what used to be called laughing thrushes are actually more closely related to other babblers, Mr. Robin added.
“When we reconstructed their genetic relationships, it was clear that these two lineages were very different from the genera in which they were previously placed” Ms. Reddy said.
Another lucky break was the discovery of old forgotten specimens in the Trivandrum Natural History Museum. “They were locked away in a cabinet and forgotten for nearly 100 years. When I found them in 2009, I never thought that it would lead to the discovery of a new species!” Mr. Vishnudas said.
‘For Western Ghats, already known for its rich and unique biodiversity, we have just increased the number of bird species found nowhere else in the world and each of these now have narrower distribution’, said Ms. Ramakrishnan.
These birds live in the most vulnerable part of the ecosystem — fragmented forest patches on the highest peaks of the range — that is facing increasing pressure from humans activities and climate change. Ms. Ramakrishnan expressed the hope that the the knowledge of their distinct evolution and ecology would help to increase conservation efforts.