The newly described manakin species, Machaeropterus eckelberryi, found during a 1996 expedition. Photo Courtesy Andy Kratter

Stepping into the Cordillera Azul is like traveling into a prehistoric time. A patchwork of mountain crests, ridges, slopes and valleys blanketed by cloud-covered canopies and ringed by dramatic rock escarpments, its forests hum with the songs of birds and frogs and the screeches of spider monkeys. The existence of this extraordinary Andean ecosystem is one Peru’s bigger conservation success stories—and one of the unsung heroes of that story is a colorful, dumpling-sized bird only just named by science.

It took 20 years for researchers to figure out that the Painted Manakin, Machaeropterus eckelberryi, is a novel species. The bird was first discovered back in 1996, when Florida Museum of Natural History ornithologist Andy Kratter, along with colleagues at Louisiana State University, embarked on a two-month long biodiversity survey in the eastern Peruvian Andes. Getting out to the remote patch of forest the group planned to survey wasn’t easy.

“It was kind of a slog,” Kratter told Earther. “Several days by boat, several days hiking to base camp, and then forays higher up into the hills.” But when they arrived, the scientists knew they had stumbled on something special. “For all of us, it was one of the most pristine locations we’ve ever been to,” Kratter said.

The forest was home to nearly all of the large Amazonian fauna, including herds of up to a hundred peccaries, and a stunning diversity of birds. But what captivated the researchers most was a tiny bird with olive wings, a golden chest, and a bright red head crest that the group found shortly after reaching its second basecamp.

Cordillera Azul National Park, as seen during a 1996 research expedition. Photo Courtesy Andy Kratter

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“It was immediately apparently this was something really cool,” Kratter said, explaining how the bird was obviously some sort of striped manakin, but it looked more like the manakins found hundreds of miles away in Venezuela than the known Peruvian species.

The group’s findings, along with those of a follow up expedition that registered more than 1,800 species of plants and animals (including over two dozen new to science), convinced the Peruvian government to set the region aside for conservation. The 5,500-square-mile Parque Nacional Cordillera Azul was established in 2001, a move which helped protect it from the growing pressures of the mining and lumbering industries.

But the identity of the tiny, brightly colored bird that captured the first survey team’s attention remained a mystery. It wasn’t until years later that LSU researcher Daniel Lane, a 22-year-old, first-year grad student on the original 1996 expedition, amassed proof that the manakin was a unique species, through a careful analysis of manakin specimens and recordings in museum collections.

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The clincher wound up being the bird’s song, which is markedly different from that of the similar-looking manakin found in Venezuela, according to the study published recently in Zootaxa. “The birds in Peru are only slightly different morphologically, but vocalizations are on the order of what we’d think of as different species,” Kratter explained.

While it’s not unheard of to discover a new species of bird in 2017—Kratter says “maybe five at most” are identified each year—it’s still unusual, and it reminds us that documenting Earth’s hidden biodiversity remains an important job. Scientists estimate there are still millions of undiscovered species, many at risk of being lost before they’re ever found.

If this little manakin, and the many other mysterious species it shares the forest with, had never been found, humans might not have thought to protect its home.

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“Finding these guys opened up a little more inventory and exploration, which led to the formation of this gigantic national park,” Kratter said.