Living La Vida Incognito: New Bird Discovered in Plain Sight

We live in a great age of species discovery, with scientists describing new and spectacular creatures at a rate that would fill the explorers of the Victorian era with sheer envy. The usual explanation is that modern researchers get to explore remote forests and mountaintops that used to be inaccessible. But sometimes a sensational species can turn up even in our own backyards.  

Something like that happened to Simon Mahood, an ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, who has just described a colorful new bird species found less than a half-hour from his home, in the heart of Cambodia’s crowded capital city Phnom Penh.

The new species is a wren-sized gray bird with a cinnamon cap, white cheeks, and a black throat, and it’s one of just two bird species that are found only in Cambodia. Hence its new common name, the Cambodian tailorbird.

In an article published in the Oriental Bird Club’s journal Forktail, Mahood and his co-authors have given it the scientific name Orthotomus chaktomuk. Mahood explains that Phnom Penh was historically known as “krong chaktomuk,” meaning “city of four faces.” It’s a reference to the low-lying area where four rivers come together downtown.  

The new species first turned up in January 2009, when a team of field researchers was doing routine sampling for avian flu. Following standard practice, they carefully untangled birds that got caught in their mist nets, took blood samples, then photographed the birds and let them go.

At first, the team mistakenly identified the new tailorbirds as members of another species commonly found in coastal areas. Then early last year, another similar specimen turned up at a construction site in the city and was at first also misclassified. But something about the photographs caught Mahood’s interest and further investigation revealed that these birds belonged to a species that had never before been described.

“Finding any new bird species is special,” says Mahood, “but to find one so close to my home and the homes of millions of people is particularly special.” As is often the case with newly discovered species, the Cambodian tailorbird faces grave threats to its survival, from hydropower developments on the Mekong River and other factors.  

So how did the species manage to remain unknown for so long—especially given that one of the earlier specimens came from just south of the city, on the grounds of the Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center itself?

Mahood and his co-authors attribute the tailorbirds’ long anonymity to their “skulking” behavior, combined with a small geographic range, and a habitat, dense floodplain scrub, that’s inhospitable to humans. That habitat also holds little interest to ornithologists because other species living there are commonplace.

All that makes the Cambodian tailorbird a good reminder that it’s possible to discover nature even in the heart of the busiest cities. Sao Paulo, Brazil, for instance, is home to more than 11 million people, but ornithologists there recently discovered a new marsh antwren in wetlands just outside the city.  

And outside of Sydney, Australia, botanists belatedly recognized that a 130-foot-tall tree belonged to a completely new genus. The moral: Look where nobody bothers to look. And even if you are looking at what everybody else thinks they see, look carefully, and you may discover that it is in fact something quite different.

Related stories on TakePart: