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Bird missing for 172 years rediscovered in Borneo rainforest

The Black-browed Babbler, widely considered by experts the ‘greatest enigma in Indonesian ornithology’, has been unexpectedly rediscovered in the rainforests of Borneo more than 172 years after it was first seen.

By BirdLife International

Mr. Muhammad Suranto and Mr. Muhammad Rizky Fauzan, both locals in Indonesia’s South Kalimantan Province, were gathering forest products in an area not far from where they live when they accidentally stumbled upon an unfamiliar bird species. They caught and released it after taking some photographs.

The friends contacted local birdwatching groups BW Galeatus and Birdpacker, who suspected the bird might be the missing Black-browed Babbler Malacocincla perspicillata. After consultations with expert ornithologists from Indonesia and around the region, their prediction was confirmed.

“It feels surreal to know that we have found a species of bird presumed by experts to be extinct. When we found it, we didn’t expect it to be that special at all – we thought it was just another bird that we simply have never seen before,” said Rizky Fauzan.

The Black-browed Babbler was described by the noted French ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte in 1850. His description was based on a specimen collected sometime in the 1840s by German geologist and naturalist Carl A.L.M. Schwaner, during his expeditions to the East Indies. Since then, no other specimen or sightings have been reported, and the origin of the ‘type specimen’ has been shrouded in mystery. Even the island from which it was taken was unclear: widely assumed to be Java, it was only in 1895 that Swiss ornithologist Johann Büttikofer pointed out that Schwaner was in Borneo at the time of his discovery.

“The sensational finding confirms that the Black-browed Babbler comes from south-eastern Borneo, ending the century-long confusion about its origins,” said Mr. Panji Gusti Akbar of Indonesian bird conservation group Birdpacker, lead author of a paper published today outlining details of the rediscovery.

“We now also know what the Black-browed Babbler really looks like – the photographed bird showed several differences from the only known specimen, specifically the colour of the iris, bill and leg. These three parts of a bird’s body are known to lose their tint and are often artificially coloured during the taxidermy process. The discovery also confirms that this species remains extant despite the massive deforestation and habitat conversion in this little-known part of Borneo. There is therefore a very high possibility of it being severely threatened by habitat loss.”

The centuries-old specimen looks rather different to the living bird © Naturalis Biodiversity Center

Co-author Mr. Teguh Willy Nugroho (a staff member of Sebangau National Park in Kalimantan and founding member of BW Galeatus), observed that the remarkable discovery demonstrated the importance of networks of local people, birdwatchers and professional scientists in gathering information on Indonesia’s biodiversity – especially some of the country’s least known species. This can be important in remote areas of the country that are not easily accessible to scientists.

“I think it is amazing that we managed to document one of the most remarkable zoological discoveries in Indonesia, if not Asia, largely through online communication in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which had hampered us from visiting the site,” Teguh noted.

The dramatic rediscovery of the Black-browed Babbler demonstrates how poorly known Indonesia’s sprawling avifauna is, the largest in Asia – with more than 1,700 species found across the archipelago’s numerous, little-surveyed islands.

“It’s sobering to think that when the Black-browed Babbler was last seen, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species hadn’t even been published and the now extinct Passenger Pigeon was still among the world’s commonest birds,” said Mr. Ding Li Yong, Flyways Coordinator for BirdLife Asia and co-author of the study. “Who knows what other riches lie deep within Borneo’s fabled rainforests – especially in the Indonesian part of the island – and the paramount need to protect them for future generations.” 

A further publication detailing the bird’s ecology is currently being prepared by the authors, while plans are ongoing to revisit the site where the species was discovered when conditions permit.

Full details of the rediscovery published today by the Oriental Bird Club, a UK-based bird conservation charity, can be found here. 

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