Scientists have placed the whitehead (Mohoua albicilla) in a new family of songbirds. (Credit: Dr Luis Ortiz-Catedral)

New songbird family discovered in NZ

  • BY Wes Judd |
  • September 19, 2013

Scientists have identified a new family of songbirds comprising three species in New Zealand.

A NEW FAMILY OF endemic songbirds has been identified in New Zealand.

The Mohouidae family includes three species of forest-dwelling birds, one of which is endangered. While the family has been written about anecdotally since the 1950s, there has been no solid evidence of its existence until now.

“Mohoua [birds] had earlier been placed into a family called the Pachycethalidad and researchers had questioned for a while whether they really fitted there,” says Zak Aidala, a PhD candidate at City University in New York City, USA, who spearheaded the project.

“Our analysis shows that the mohoua really don’t belong in that family, they belong in their own – endemic to New Zealand.”

Fifth songbird genus identified in New Zealand

The new family, which includes the whitehead (Mohoua albicilla), the brown creeper (Mohoua novaseelandiae) and the endangered yellowhead (Mohoua ochrocephala), increases the number of endemic New Zealand songbird groups to five.

For the study, a team of international scientists from New Zealand, Ecuador, Australia and the USA analysed the DNA of the three forest bird species. It was the first time DNA had been extracted from two of the species. The results were published this month in the Journal of Ornithology.

“Through analysis, we concluded that the genetic distance between these birds and the [non-endemic] family they were previously thought to be a part of was so large that is made sense to re-erect this whole group,” Dr Mark Hauber of Hunter College in New York, one of the scientists involved in the research.

New Zealand birds among the most unique in the world

Mark says the elusive birds are notoriously hard to study. The whitehead is only found in native and exotic forests in the North Island, while the brown creeper and yellowhead are only found on the South and Stewart Islands.

Significantly, the yellowhead is an endangered species and Zak says the new information might prove vital for its conservation.

Dr Luis Ortiz-Catedral, an ecologist at Massey University in New Zealand also involved in the study, agrees. “New Zealand is one of the world’s most extinction-prone areas in the world,” he told Australian Geographic. “Instead of conserving species individually, we can develop a strategy to conserve these endemic families, which will benefit three species at once.”

In the past, Mark says, scientists have compared New Zealand birds to other Australasian bird species solely based on their appearance and characteristics. However, as more genetic information is collected the uniqueness of these species becomes more apparent.

Dr Michael Anderson, also at Massey University, says this is partly due to New Zealand’s relative isolation. “New Zealand has been isolated from other land masses for such a long period of time that before mammals were able to reach New Zealand, a lot of our native bird species have been able to fill the ecological niches of mammals,” says Michael, adding that New Zealand has one of the highest levels of endemic bird species in the world.

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