The Black-browed Babbler, Once Thought Extinct, Is Back

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 

Black-browed Bbbbler
This is the actual black-browed babbler (Malacocincla perspicillata) specimen found and stuffed by Carl A.L.M. Schwaner and studied by the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1850. HowStuffWorks/Naturalis Biodiversity Center/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Some animals are very rare, it's true. However, it's unusual for an animal to be so rare that one European explorer finds it while cruising through Indonesia in the 1840s, and it isn't known again to science for another 170 years. That is an excessively rare animal, and the black-browed babbler (Malacocincla perspicillata) is one of these.

The black-browed babbler is a bird that lives exclusively on the island of Borneo. Part of the reason the bird was lost for so many decades is that the guy who caught, killed and stuffed the first specimen in the late 1840s, German naturalist Carl A.L.M. Schwaner, reported that he found the bird on the island of Java, one island to the south. But even after the mix-up was rectified, scientists didn't find the bird. They didn't look very hard, admittedly, but still — the bird was lost for 170 years.

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Until, that is, two local men caught a black, gray and brown bird they didn't recognize in the forest in the South Kalimantan province of Borneo. They texted a photo of the bird to BW Galeatus, a birdwatching group founded on Borneo in 2016. Members of the group agreed that though the bird resembled Horsfield's babbler — a different babbler species found on the island — it much more closely resembled the drawings of the black-browed babbler in the bird guides, listed there as possibly extinct and drawn from the dead specimen collected before Charles Darwin wrote "Origin of the Species."

At this point, scientists know next to nothing about this bird, however here's what is surprising about the black-browed babbler so far. The bird has red eyes, rather than the bright yellow eyes represented by Schwaner's somewhat fanciful taxidermy. And they have survived all these years in spite of Borneo's aggressive deforestation practices that have decimated other populations of animals on the island.

Only time and more study will tell the full tale of the black-browed babbler. Though only one bird has been rediscovered, this elusive species might end up being considered a "Lazarus species," an organism thought to be extinct, but found to exist after an extensive period of time off the world stage.

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