Is this a new species of bird-of-paradise?
For centuries, the Superb Bird-of-Paradise from the Bird’s Head or Vogelkop region of western New Guinea was thought to be the same species as the one found throughout the rest of New Guinea: the now famous species with the otherworldly bouncing black and blue smiley-face courtship dance.
However, the calls of the Vogelkop males sound different the females look different and new research shows that it is genetically distinct too.
But the displays of the Vogelkop form had never been documented so we traveled to the mountains of West Papua, Indonesia to film its courtship dance for the first time. And what we discovered totally surprised us.
In the initial stages of display, the Vogelkop form holds its cape in a striking spread-wing like position. Whereas in the widespread form the Cape stays folded over the back. During the pointing display, the breast ornament of the Vogelkop form is hidden from view and the ornamental eye-spots shine like headlights at an approaching female.
By contrast, the electric blue breast of the widespread form is always presented.
Most strikingly, when the specialized cape is presented, the shape of the Vogelkop form is like a crescent
instead of the familiar oval of the widespread form.
And the blue breast feathers give the Vogelkop form a distinctly “frowny-face” look that is quite different from the now famous “smiley face” of the widespread form.
And when the male’s perform their dances for a female, the Vogelkop form circles with a quick gliding sidestep instead of the vigorous bouncing that’s a hallmark of the widespread form.
Does all this add up to the Vogelkop form being a separate species? We think so. And so do our scientist peers.
The Vogelkop Super Bird-of-Paradise is the newest addition to the bird-of-paradise family tree. It’s an exciting discovery that was hiding under our noses all along.
The Vogelkop Superb is now the fourth bird-of-paradise species endemic to the endemic to the Bird’s Head region of Indonesian New Guinea.
Now is the time to protect these forests not just to ensure the future of these spectacular birds, but also to ensure the future of all the biodiversity and people who live alongside them.
Learn more about this discovery in our scientific paper documenting how the distinct song, dance, and courtship appearance of the Vogelkop form confirms its new species status.
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In 2016, Cornell Lab of Ornithology researcher Ed Scholes and photographer Tim Laman were on a multimedia expedition for the Birds-of-Paradise Project in the far western region of New Guinea, called the Bird’s Head (or Vogelkop) peninsula, when they happened to hear a distinctive song. Scholes and Laman knew the population of Superb Bird-of-Paradise found there sang a different song than individuals elsewhere in New Guinea, so they set up their gear to record the bird’s courtship behavior—the first time the behavior of this western population had ever been filmed.
The Superb Bird-of-Paradise (now called the Greater Superb Bird-of-Paradise) is a somewhat well-known bird. The species shot to stardom after the male’s courtship dance appeared on David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series. For a mating display, the male fans its feathers out to form a pitch-black oval highlighted by electric-blue feathers—suggesting a smile and a pair of eyes—and hops excitedly around a female.
But as Scholes and Laman watched this new western bird’s routine, they noticed subtle novelties in the display. This bird slid from side to side instead of hopping, and its feathers fanned out to a crescent instead of an oval.
These and other differences—published in the journal PeerJ by Scholes and Laman—were enough to suggest this was a new species. Their findings were bolstered by another team’s research that confirmed via DNA analysis that the Vogelkop population of the Superb Bird-of-Paradise was genetically distinct.