15 Newly Discovered Birds Showcase Uniqueness of Amazonia

In the newest volume of the “Handbook of the Birds of the World,” scientists announced the discovery of 15 bird species new to science — including one named after CI’s José Maria “Ze” Cardoso da Silva. Ze keeps good company; other birds in this group are being named after U.S. President Barack Obama and British naturalist David Attenborough. Today on Human Nature, he responds to this honor.

river in Brazilian Amazon

River in the Brazilian Amazon. (© Adriano Gambarini)

New species of birds are not easy to discover. Compared to other groups of animals, birds have been well studied and sampled. However, in places such as Amazonia, surprises can happen. In a groundbreaking effort, researchers from several institutions recently described 15 new species from Amazonia; I was honored to learn that one of them was named after me.

This bird is very beautiful, with a long, thin, gracefully curved beak and brown-and-green speckled feathers. It is found in the understory and midstory of upland forests in the region between the Tapajós and Xingu rivers. It has a very distinctive, loud song that can be heard mostly early in the morning and in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, no photos of the bird in nature currently exist.

Illustration of Campylorhamphus cardosoi

Illustration of Campylorhamphus cardosoi, which appears in the “Handbook of the Birds of the World. Special Volume: New Species and Global Index.” No photos of this newly discovered species currently exist. (Illustration by Hilary Burn/courtesy of Lynx Edicions)

Nine authors from five institutions in Brazil (INPA, Goeldi Museum, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) and the U.S. (Field Museum of Natural History and Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History) joined forces to describe this bird. The species was named Campylorhamphus cardosoi; its English name will be the Tapajós scythebill.

Authors named the species after me because of my previous biogeographical work in the region, in which I suggested that the Tapajós region contained more endemic species — ones found nowhere else on Earth — than we knew at the time. My work studying the distribution of species and ecosystems over space and time in Amazonia is still the basis for CI’s conservation blueprint in the region, and has influenced both scientists and decision-makers. Scythebills are my favorite birds; I saw them frequently during my field work.

In the past, bird species were described mostly based on their plumage colors and body shape. Now, researchers combine morphology with vocalizations and genetic analyses. This integration of data allows for a more accurate definition of a species and its relationships with other species in the region. The Tapajós scythebill was identified as a distinct species based on its genetic makeup.

It is an honor to have my ideas and work recognized by other scientists. The honor is even more meaningful because this bird is part of a group that I have studied for so many years. There are only 9,900 described species of birds on the planet; not a lot of them were described and named after individuals.

Scythebills are so well linked to forests that by studying their evolution, we can understand the evolution of the forests themselves. I hope this discovery will encourage greater protection of this region and all it holds.

José Maria “Ze” Cardoso da Silva is CI’s executive vice president for field programs.

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