For biologists, there are few things quite as exciting as discovering a new species. And though it has been said that the Philippines is one of the most gifted countries in the world in term of biodiversity, there are few things that demonstrate this fact quite as well as the discovery of a new form of life right here on our shores.
A new bird species, believed to be found nowhere else in the world, has been discovered on the remote island of Calayan, 70 km north of Luzon.
The bird will be named the ‘Calayan Rail’ (Gallirallus calayanensis), after the island on which it was found. Calayan is the largest island in the Babuyan Island group that lies between Batanes and Luzon.
The discovery was made by a team of nine volunteer wildlife researches from the Philippines and the United Kingdom, who conducted a survey of birds, mammals, repriles, and amphibians on the islands from April to June. The team was led by conservationists Carl Oliveros and Genevieve Broad.
Carmela Española, a Filipino wildlife biologist, found a group of these dark brown birds with their distinctive orange-red bills and legs foraging in the undergrowth near a stream while she was walking through a rainforest on May 11 this year.
Her notes and photographs, along with the recordings of the bird’s loud, harsh, rasping calls, later helped determine that the species was not only new to her, but also new to science. Locals, however, know the bird by the name ‘piding’. Some residents said the birds were there sometimes even caught for food.
“We expected many new distribution records for the Babuyan Islands, but a new bird species was completely unexpected,” said Española.
Oliveros said, “We plan to undertake further research to determine the habitat requirements, abundance and distribution of the rail, while working closely with local residents to minimize threats, and to encourage long-term initiatives to protect the forest.”
He added, “Although apparently not under the immediate threat, the limited distribution of the new species makes it vulnerable to habitat loss and predators introduced to the island such as cats and rats.”
Carlo Custodio, chief ecosystems management specialist of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, said “the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has taken the initiatial steps in the process of declaring the islands of the Babuyan group a protected area. The discovery of this rail inspires us to continue the work that has been started.”
Juan Carlos Gonzalez, a professor in zoology and wildlife biology at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños and a member of the survey team, said the new species may be classified as ‘vulnerable’ under the World Conservation Union Red List criteria for species of conservation concern.
Thia means the Calayan Rail faces a “high risk of extinction in the wild.”
Rails are ground-feeding and ground-nesting birds with long legs and straight pointed bills. Rails and other similar species have among the highest records of recently extinct or endangered birds.
Eighteen of the 20 living species of the flightless rail are considered threatened, and the majority of the rail species that have become extinct since 1600 were flightless, said a 1998 handbook on rails.
During their stay on the island, the nine-member expedition team saw adult and juvenile birds on several occasions. Within a two-kilometer range of their rainforest camp, they recorded an estimated 100-200 pairs.
The Calayan Rail also appears to be nearly or completely flightless. Expedition members said the birds were seen skulking in the undergrowth or out on open trails, sometimes alone, sometimes in family groups.
Altough it orange-red bill and legs look similar to the Okinawa Rail from the Ryukyu Islands in Japan, the Calayan Rail does not have a white stripe below the eye and black white barring in its underparts, said Gonzalez, who is one of the authors of the scientific paper describing the new species.
Apart from Española and Gonzales, other expedition members included Oriental bird specialist Desmond Allen (British), Harvey John Garcia, Marisol Pedegrosa, Mark Anthony Reyes and Amado Bajarias Jr. Most of the team are members of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines.
The nine-week survey was funded through the Rufford Small Grant Committee and the Oriental Bird Club. Additional equipment was provided by IdeaWild USA.
The team surveyed the terrestrial fauna in Camiguin, Babuyan Claro, Calayan and Dalupiri Islands, which form part of the Babuyan Island group.
Calayan Island is still largely covered by rainforest and has 8,500 residents. The island was last visited by ornithologists exactly one hundred years ago.
“In the midst of the disapprearing rainforests of the Philippines and the drastic loss of biodiversity, the discovery of the Calayan Rail in one of the most fragile habitats in the archipelago is a sign of hope that it’s not too late to conserve these remote rainforests. But we need to conserve and learn about it before it’s too late,” added Gonzalez.
This article was republished with permission from
Haribon Foundation: Protecting Nature. Preserving Life.