Page last updated at 17:55 GMT, Thursday, 30 July 2009 18:55 UK

Bald songbird discovered in Laos

By Griet Scheldeman
Science reporter, BBC News

head and face of new bald bird (I. Woxvold)
The unusual songbird lacks feathers on its face

Scientists have discovered a striking new species of bald songbird in a limestone region of South East Asia.

Its inhospitable habitat, far from any human activity or settlement, may explain why this unusual creature has evaded researchers until now.

The bald-headed bird was spotted by scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the University of Melbourne.

This is the first new bulbul to have been discovered in 100 years.

The newly discovered bulbul is also the first bald songbird to be spotted in mainland Asia.

Exciting discovery

The researchers reported their discovery of the new species, which they aptly named the bare-faced bulbul, in Forktail, the journal of the Oriental Bird Club.

There are still quite a lot of places in Laos that have not yet been explored.
Dr Peter Clyne

They described the new tree-dwelling bird as olive-green with a light-coloured breast and an exceptional featherless orange-pink and pale blue face.

The thrush-sized bird makes short flights from tree to tree and has a short distinctive call, the researchers said.

"The bird was neither skulking nor shy", they wrote, "but rather conspicuous in its habits".

Dr Peter Clyne, assistant director for Asia at the WCS, told BBC News that the discovery of a new species of animal was always an exciting event, and that it turned the spotlight on conservation issues.

The scientists reported that the new bulbul, who inhabits a protected area in central Laos, is safe for now. But more work is needed to ensure it is not put in danger by future human activities.

A bird in the net

After initially spotting and recording sounds from the new bird on 3 December 2008 in Pha Lom, a limestone outcrop in central Laos, researchers Iain Woxvold and Will Duckworth managed to "mist net" two birds a couple of days later, by playing back the initial bird's song.

"Mist netting is a standard technique used in ornithology studies to capture small, typically forest-type birds," said Dr Clyne.

"You put up a fine net that is very hard to see because it is black. Usually, the birds do not detect it in time, so they fly into the net."

He added: "They're perfectly safe. You collect the bird out of the net, then you can take measurements of its weight and wing length for example."

The discovery was made during a scheme funded by the Minerals and Metals Group mining company that operates a copper and gold project in the region.

Dr Clyne, who was involved in negotiations with the company, said: "This is an example of how a conservation organisation can work with a natural resource extraction industry co-operatively for the benefit of both.

"There's a lot of research to be done on this animal, we just discovered it. The first step is to continue to do some basic research on its distribution, its dietary needs, and its habitat requirements."

The scientists reported that they collected one bird to deposit in the Natural History Museum at Tring, UK, and photographed and blood-sampled the other one before it escaped.

In February 2009, they compared their findings with material in the Museum of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, which confirmed that they had indeed discovered a new species.

So far, the researchers believe they may have spotted a maximum of seven birds in total.

The researchers explained that future research was needed, not only for the bare-faced bulbul, but for all the limestone areas in South East Asia, as many new plant and animal species remained to be discovered.

In 2002, for example, in the same area, co-author and researcher Rob Timmins of WCS, described the kha-nyou, a newly discovered species of rodent. Three years before, he had discovered a unique striped rabbit.

Dr Clyne commented: "There are still quite a lot of places in Laos that have not yet been explored."

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