This post is the beginning of a series meant to highlight new discoveries about birds and make ornithological research more accessible to young birders. I will write one of these posts every three months on the latest scientific findings. Stay tuned for more fascinating research!
Last year was an exciting time for ornithologists. Today we begin our investigation in Brazil, where an international team of researchers has discovered an astounding fifteen new species of birds. It’s not surprising that such a quantity of new species, the most ever discovered in a single study since 1871, would take place in the Amazon Rainforest. It is a little-explored region that harbors some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. Ornithologists credit their ability to distinguish between closely related species to advances in technology such as DNA analysis and satellite imagery. The new species include fourteen types of passerines and one member of the Bucconidae family, which includes Puffbirds.

“Birds are, far and away, the best-known group of vertebrates, so describing a large number of uncataloged species of birds in this day and age is unexpected, to say the least,” said Whitney.  “But what’s so exciting about this presentation of 15 new species from the Amazon all at once is, first, highlighting how little we really know about species diversity in Amazonia, and second, showing how technological advances have given us new tool sets for discovering and comparing…closely related populations.”

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Note: The second source is in Portuguese and discusses the individual species in greater detail. I recommend using Google Translate.
While we are hanging out in the tropics, let’s take a quick hop over to Costa Rica, where people—and birds—go crazy for coffee. Previously, Stanford researchers had shown that preserving stands of rainforest on coffee plantations boosts bird biodiversity. However, a recent study shows that the birds pay their keep by controlling populations of coffee-destroying beetles. In fact, the birds can save farmers $75-$310 over an area the size to two football fields every year. Researchers hope that these monetary incentives will encourage more farmers to keep their farms bird friendly—and keep birds and people alike supplied with their daily cup of coffee!

Stanford biologists have been studying the intersection of nature and agriculture in Costa Rica since the 1990s, in part because of the vast amounts of land in that country dedicated to coffee production. The borer beetle arrived in the past few years, and Karp’s group began to investigate whether farms with protected forests, and thus a greater biodiversity of insect-eating birds, fared better under attack from the insects.

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Photo: Steven Kersting via Flickr Creative Commons

Providing forest habitats around coffee farms attracts birds such as this Yellow Warbler, which help reduce pests. Photo: Steven Kersting via Flickr Creative Commons

Let’s escape the heat for a bit by heading over to Antarctica, where the latest research in penguin evolution is coming to light. The species diversification we see today among penguins may be largely attributed to a cold spell approximately 12 million years ago. Using DNA sequencing and fossilized specimens, an Australian team determined that the common ancestor of penguins likely arrived in Antarctica 20 million years ago, a major advance from the previous estimate of between 10 and 50 million years ago. The distinct genera we see today evolved between 11 and 16 million years ago, which coincided with a global drop in temperatures 12 million years ago. New research suggests that the cold spell may have been the cause of species diversification and migration back into the tropics.

“The results suggest that penguins’ common ancestor appeared in Antarctica around 20 million years ago. The researchers also found that the major groups of living penguins began branching off between 16 million and 11 million years ago. The timing overlaps with a climate shift around 12 million years ago that cooled Antarctica. The icier temperatures may have spurred the migration and evolution of some penguin species, the researchers suggest.”

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More on prehistoric penguins:

Photo: Graham Canny via Flickr Creative Commons

The ancestors of these King Penguins arrived in Antarctica around 20 million years ago, according to new research. Photo: Graham Canny via Flickr Creative Commons

Finally, a new study from Spain shows that it pays to be smart. Researchers reveal that birds with larger brains, such as crows and parrots, experience lower levels of the stress hormone corticosterone than birds with smaller brains under demanding circumstances. Though large brains are evolutionarily “expensive” to maintain, they allow birds to adapt to new environments and handle challenges that a smaller brained bird might balk at. Interestingly the study was conducted by a detailed analysis of 189 previously published papers on corticosterone levels in different birds rather than by direct experimentation. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants!

“An enlarged brain might be costly to develop and maintain, but could increase the bird’s ability to face new challenges and cope with unpredictable situations. Higher cognitive skills “can be seen as an alternative mechanism to hormonal responses,” Sol explains. After all, he says, in multiple animal species “learning has long been associated with a reduction in stress.”

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Photo: Melanie Cook via Flickr Creative Commons

Big brained species such as this Australian Raven experience lower levels of stress hormones than their small brained counterparts. Photo: Melanie Cook via Flickr Creative Commons