The display of a bird-of-paradise has been documented from the Bird's Head Peninsula of West Papua, Indonesia, for the first time, leading ornithologists to describe it as a new species "hiding in plain sight".
Superb Bird-of-paradise (Lophornia superba), which has one of the most famous and spectacular displays of all its family, was traditionally considered a single, widespread species on New Guinea. However, recent research has suggested that there are in fact three allopatric species spanning the island: L niedda in the Bird's Head Peninsula of the west, L superba throughout the central cordillera and L minor in the Papuan Peninsula of the east.
Of the three, niedda is the most distinct, with its differing plumage traits previously suspected to possibly produce differences in ornamental appearance during display.
A combination of fieldwork and museum analysis has since led to the conclusion that niedda is indeed a different species, named Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-paradise, with superba renamed Greater Superb Bird of Paradise.
Ornithologist Edwin Scholes and photographer Tim Laman had their suspicions about this taxonomic situation for almost a decade, having first noticed the significant differences in vocalisations in 2009, with Scholes describing Vogelkop Superb's voice as "radically different than the one we were familiar with".
Then, in 2016, a group of independent researchers found genetic variances in museum specimens of the two taxa, indicating the presence of distinct species. This prompted Scholes and Laman to conduct a field expedition to the Bird's Nest Peninsula, in order to study and document Vogelkop Superb's display for the first time.
Their results showed that niedda courtship differed substantially from superba, with six key differences highlighted in their paper. For example, during its dance, superba famously bends its knees and bounces. However, niedda quickly shuffles its feet, effectively gliding from side to side. Scholes described it as looking like "somebody has wound up a child's toy and put it on a smooth floor".
Further differences included: the protruding wing-like position of the ornamental cape during the horizontal and pointing displays; how the breast shield is obscured during the pointing display, which visually emphasises the 'headlight-like' appearance of the eye-spot ornament as viewed by a female; how during the cape presentation display, the cape is not fully opened until after the female approaches at close range on the display log; the striking difference in appearance of the fully opened cape presentation, with niedda possessing a distinctive crescent shape, the ribbed contour, the 'frowning face' look of the breast shield and the way in which the eye-spots sometimes have 'eyebrows'; and a piercing whistle-like vocalisation instead of the characteristic raspy screech of superba.
Detailed comparison of the cape presentation form of Greater Superb (left) and Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-paradise (right) (Edwin Scholes and Tim Laman).
With full species status, Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-paradise becomes the fourth endemic bird-of-paradise to the Bird's Head region of Indonesian New Guinea, a fact that underscores the importance of this region as a centre of endemic biodiversity worthy of enhanced conservation protection.
The full paper, including detailed photo-analysis of the males' display, can be read online here.
Scholes, E, and Laman, T G. 2018. Distinctive courtship phenotype of the Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise Lophorina niedda Mayr, 1930 confirms new species status. PeerJ 6:e4621 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.4621.