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Indian warbler re-found after 139 years

09 March 2007

A species of warbler thought to be extinct has been re-found alive in the wild in Thailand and, by coincidence, a specimen in the collections of the Natural History Museum, UK has also been found.

The large-billed reed-warbler is re-found after 139 years.© Philip Round/The Wetland Trust.

The large-billed reed-warbler is re-found after 139 years. © Philip Round/The Wetland Trust.

The large-billed reed warbler, Acrocephalus orinus , was until 2006 known from only one specimen, discovered in India in 1867. This was looked after in the Museum's bird collection.

However, because of its close resemblance to other warblers, there was a long-running dispute as to whether the specimen was a distinct species or not.

In 2002, this was resolved when a sample from the bird was sent for DNA analysis, which confirmed its identity as a good species.

Live bird captured

Then in March 2006, ornithologist Philip Round, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, Mahidol University, captured a live individual while ringing birds in Thailand. Photos and DNA analysis of feather samples later identified it as the same species.

Third specimen

Shortly afterwards, a third specimen was discovered in the Museum's bird collection, where it had lain undetected among specimens of a similar species for 137 years. It also was from India, but a different area from the original specimen.

'This large-billed reed warbler is a truly enigmatic bird,' says Robert Prys-Jones, Museum bird expert.

'First there was argument over whether the single known specimen was a good species at all, so similar is it to some other warblers. Then, after well over a century, two further individuals come to light; one overlooked in a collection for more than a hundred years; the other alive at a site thousands of kilometres away from the original specimen.'

'As all three specimens were caught outside the nesting season, mystery still remains regarding its breeding site'.
More to learn

This discovery highlights how important routine bird monitoring is and that even in well-studied areas there is still more to learn. It is important now to find out where the main population lives so that any necessary protection can be given.

Natural History Museum bird collection

The Natural History Museum bird research collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world, with about 1,500,000  skin, skeleton, spirit, egg and nest specimens, representing over 95 per cent of known bird species .  The collection is at the Natural History Museum at Tring , Hertfordshire .