Saturday, August 16, 2008

New Forest Robin Species in Gabon

A Smithsonian scientist working in Gabon discovered a previously-unknown bird species, the olive-backed forest robin (Stiphrornis pyrrholaemus). Both males and females have an olive back, yellow belly, and dark gray head with white lores. Females have an intensely yellow throat, while males have a fiery red throat. The scientific name means something like "fire-throated stoutbird," based on its Greek etymology.

The species appeared at several locations surveyed by the Smithsonian's Monitoring and Assessment of Biodiversity Program in 2001. Members of the team originally suspected that it was a juvenile of a known species, but comparison with museum specimens failed to show a match. Genetic analysis based on mitochondrial DNA confirmed that it was indeed a new species. The Smithsonian collected ten specimens, one of which will stay in Gabon. Another specimen was collected by a French expedition in the 1950s, but at the time, it was identified as S. xanthogaster.

The new species belongs to the family Muscicapidae, the Old World flycatchers. (The family includes European robins.) Its genus, Stiphrornis, is composed of five species,* all of which occur in Central Africa. S. pyrrholaemus likely split from its closest relative, S. erythrothorax, about three million years ago. While the genus Stiphrornis is common in Gabon, and S. pyrrholaemus is locally common, its precise range and distribution is uncertain.

The olive-backed forest robin prefers primary lowland forest with a moderate understory. It shies away from forests that have been disturbed by large mammals or fragmented by humans. Like the other members of its genus, it forages near ground level. Little is known about these forests in Central Africa, as few scientific expeditions have explored them. Who knows what other species might lurk there?

Description of the olive-backed forest robin (pdf) from Schmidt et al., "A new species of African Forest Robin from Gabon (Passeriformes: Muscicapidae: Stiphrornis)," Zootaxa 1850: 27-42 (15 Aug. 2008).

Photograph from Science Daily.

* I am following the same taxonomy as followed by Schmidt et al. in their new paper. BirdLife classes all members of the genus as a single species, S. erythrothorax.