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The Hanuman plover has been reinstated as a species in its own right, after spending almost a century classed as a subspecies.
Plovers are a family of shorebirds that live all over the world, except for the very poles. They feed on invertebrates, but otherwise have a range of different habitats and lifestyle
In the 1930s, the “diminutive Kentish plover”, Charadrius seebohmi, was merged into the Kentish plover Charadrius alexandrinus, as both species were considered to be the same.
Now a team of scientists, including co-author of the study and Principal Curator in Charge of Birds at the Natural History Museum Dr Alex Bond, have concluded that enough differences do in fact exist between the two to elevate it back to the status of full species and given it the name of Hanuman plover.
Dr Alex Bond says: 'Over a century ago, these birds were considered to be their own species, so it's not that these plovers have changed. Instead, it's our understanding of what a species is, and how much variation is suitable to differentiate one, that is different.'
'It's this, along with the advent of genetic techniques, that have allowed us to tease these two species apart.'
Strong evidence that the Hanuman plover and Kentish plover were two different species was found in their genetics, which suggested they had split apart around 1.2 million years ago.
At the time, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were decreasing, which caused changes in the timing of Ice Ages. The researchers suggest that this event, known as the Mid-Pleistocene Transition, might have been responsible for causing the two species to diverge due to the environmental impacts it caused, such as sea level changes.
The scientists also took measurements and samples from wild birds, as well as specimens held in museum collections. 10 specimens of the Hanuman Plover held by the Natural History Museum were integral to this research.
They found that these birds tended to have smaller wings, tails and beaks than the Kentish plover, as well as different plumage. The Kentish plover tends to have black legs in both sexes, while the Hanuman plover has dark grey legs. Males have a black stripe across their forehead that C. alexandrinus doesn't.
Observations of wild birds also showed that Hanuman plover moult much earlier in the year than the Kentish plover, and moult different feathers before the breeding season.
Dr Alex Bond explains: 'The Kentish plover reflects a general trend of lumping different taxa together, particularly in birds, in the mid to late twentieth century.'
'In the past 20 years the move has been to split these up as we've recognised that what was thought to be one species can actually be several different ones.'
The researchers hope that by resurrecting the species, which lives in Sri Lanka and southern India, conservation funding will be used to help protect the area's threatened wetlands. These habitats are highly biodiverse and provide important overwintering sites for migrating birds.
Dr Alex Bond says: 'While we don't know if the Hanuman plover is threatened at the moment, it lives in an area which has of the highest human population densities on the planet.'
'Having a name attached to these birds means it is easier for policymakers and politicians to notice these plovers and take any steps needed to help them.'
Presented with the opportunity to pick a new common name for the species, the team of scientists chose to name it after the Hindu god Hanuman, who according to legend built a bridge between southern India and Sri Lanka.
The findings of the study, Systematic revision of the ‘diminutive’ Kentish Plover (Charadriidae: Charadrius) with the resurrection of Charadrius seebohmi based on phenotypic and genetic analyses were published in the journal Ibis.
Notes to editors
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