New bird species spotted in Brunei

Izah Azahari

The discovery of a species of bird in Brunei, never before recorded on Borneo, was announced by researchers from Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD). This brings the total number of bird species on Borneo to 674.

“The species is a Slaty-legged Crake or Rallina eurizonoides, as it is called scientifically,” Professor of Biology from the Faculty of Science (FOS) at UBD Professor Dr Ulmar Grafe said.

“This shy and secretive bird can be found in the Asian mainland, in the Philippines and the islands of Sulawesi and Sumatra, but has never officially been recorded on Borneo,” he said. “New species discoveries aren’t an everyday event. We are very excited about this finding on Brunei.”

Professor Erik Meijaard and Rona Dennis of Borneo Futures – a Brunei-based, scientific consultancy group, who found the species explained the unusual circumstances in which they located it.

“We were driving towards the local recycling station with our tins and plastic,” Rona said. “I then saw a dead bird lying by the side of the road, with a bright orangey-red patch.”

Rona and Erik took photographs and initially left the bird where it was. Only after returning home and consulting the bird guide books and shared the photographs on social media, did they realise the importance of the find.

The first-ever specimen of the Slaty-legged Crake on mainland Borneo was believed to have been unfortunately killed in a vehicle collision. The slaty-grey legs and thin white barring on the chest are key characteristics of this species. PHOTO: UBD
Brunei was recently ranked number one globally in terrestrial biomes by the Environmental Performance Index, compiled every two years by American ivy-league universities Yale and Columbia. File photo shows Luagan Lalak Recreation Park in the Belait District. PHOTO: LAW HIENG HING

“There is a similar-looking bird, which is quite common on Borneo which is called the Red-legged Crake,” Erik said. Only on closer inspection of the photograph did Rona and Erik realise that the slaty-grey legs indicated they had found something unusual.

They returned to where they had seen the bird, which had likely been hit by a car and collected the specimen. They informed Professor Dr Grafe, the curator of the UBD Natural History Museum (UBDM), who is interested in obtaining specimens from Borneo.

The new bird is now at the UBDM for further study.

Professor Dr Grafe explained how important it is that the public is involved in monitoring and recording Brunei’s biodiversity as this discovery shows once again how little we know about the natural world in which we live and how there is still so much to discover. He added that the museum at UBD is always interested in any specimens the public can contribute, including road kills.

“It helps us so much to document what species live in Brunei and to show the world how incredibly rich this country is in biodiversity,” added Professor Dr Grafe.

The discovery comes just days after Brunei was ranked number one globally in terrestrial biomes by the Environmental Performance Index compiled every two years by American ivy-league universities Yale and Columbia. Dr Siti Salwa bin Abdul Khalid from UBD’s Institute for Biodiversity and Environmental Research (IBER) is keen to learn more about the slaty-legged Crake in Brunei. Dr Siti Salwa noted that the strange thing about it is that the species was discovered in June, which is outside the bird migration season, where birds that are rarely seen on Borneo would normally arrive from mainland Asia during the northern winter when they migrate south and may get lost along the route.

She added that a species record in June, however, may indicate that the Slaty-legged Crake is actually residential on Borneo now. Because the species has an unusual call, she intends to make sound recordings in the area where it was discovered to see if more birds of that species occur.

“It is an exciting time to be a biologist,” Dr Siti Salwa said.

As is commonly done with rare bird sightings, the location of the find has not been revealed. Rare species sometimes attract bird poachers who think there is money to be made from catching and selling the birds.

The next step in terms of research will be to conduct DNA tests and verify whether the Brunei specimen is most closely related to the populations on the Asian mainland or maybe the Philippines or Indonesian islands.

Biodiversity research is one of UBD’s main research thrusts, contributing towards sustainable use and conservation of tropical biodiversity and ecosystems. Recent studies revealed over 160,000 trees from more than 1,000 different species exist within a 25-hectare forest dynamics plot at UBD’s premier international field research facility, the Kuala Belalong Field Studies Centre (KBFSC).

Records of new plant, animal, and microbial species discovered in the Sultanate continue to expand significantly. Bioprospecting of novel chemicals and therapeutic agents, environmental studies and research on marine biodiversity are also key strengths of biodiversity research at UBD.