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The male Wakatobi flowerpecker. Image: 2014 Kelly et al.

Today in 'bird with the best name ever', we give you the Wakatobi flowerpecker (Dicaeum kuehni) – a new species discovered on the Wakatobi Archipelago, in the heart of Indonesia.

Wakatobi, a serious hotspot for bird biodiversity, is part of a region of Indonesia known as Wallacea (named after infamous explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace).

Over six hundred known species of birds call the island chain home, but after several expeditions to the region, a group of zoologists from the Trinity College Dublin began to suspect that the relationships between these birds might be more complicated than previously thought.

"A considerable proportion of the world's [birds] are known to be incorrectly classified," says team member Seán Kelly, who set off to investigate a case of mistaken identity in the flowerpecker family. "Asian populations are especially deserving of a reassessment," he says.

Kelly explains that because our understanding of taxonomic relationships has greatly improved since early explorers first studied the archipelago, the time has come to look more critically at the species that live there.

When scientists initially described the grey-sided flowerpecker (Dicaeum celebicum), a small nectar-drinking bird endemic to Indonesia, populations from the Wakatobi archipelago were described as a separate species from those on nearby mainland Sulawesi. But for reasons that remain unknown, the much larger Wakatobi group was then reclassified as a subspecies of the mainland form, according to Kelly.  

DNA sampling along with a comparative study of the birds' morphology, ecology and mating signals allowed Kelly and his team to correct this flowerpecker faux pas, establishing the Wakatobi flowerpecker as a species in its own right once more.   

Wakatobi Flowerpecker 2014 06 10
The researchers were able to prove that the Wakatobi flowerpecker (male and female, right) is distinct from its grey-sided relative (male and female, left). Image: 2014 Kelly et al.

The genetic data from the study shows that the two flowerpecker species do not mix or interbreed, suggesting they do not cross the 27 kilometre stretch of ocean that separates them – something the team feels is crucial to understand.

"Humans are changing the natural environments of the region at an incredibly fast rate," Kelly says. "[The] discovery and description of species in the [area] is of major importance. Accurate data on the distribution and status of bird species are regularly used to inform conservation practices and industrial development [policies]”.

Though the islands in the archipelago sit within the Wakatobi National Park, they are currently not included in park protections.

"The Wakatobi Islands are an incredibly exciting place to work and they serve as a unique living laboratory in which we can study evolution in action," says Dr Nicola Marples, associate professor of zoology at Trinity, noting that the identification of species confined entirely to the Wakatobi Islands will require conservation organisations to reassess the protection status afforded to these islands.

Kelly and his team hope that their findings will inspire more research into the birds of the Walacea region, and that a better understanding will help policy makers ensure they have a successful future.

Top header image: Luke Mackin, Flickr