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Enigmatic bird lost to science for 170 years rediscovered in Indonesia

It's "mind blowing" to think the black-browed babbler isn't extinct, conservationists say.

This photo of a black-browed babbler is the first confirmed sighting of the bird in over 170 years.
Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan

There's one known specimen of the black-browed babbler bird in scientific archives. It was collected and described way back in the 1840s and has largely remained a mystery ever since.

Researchers have now confirmed a sighting of a black-browed babbler in Borneo, Indonesia, and there are photos to prove it.

Scientists can thank locals Muhammad Suranto and Muhammad Rizky Fauzan, who captured the bird by accident while out in the forest. They recognized it was unusual and took photos to send to a birdwatching group before releasing it. The photos circulated to ornithologists who made the identification.

The images have allowed researchers to better describe the bird and its coloration and to understand its home territory. The original specimen's origin was uncertain due to inaccurate record-keeping. 

A team led by ornithologist Panji Gusti Akbar with Indonesian birding group Birdpacker published a paper on the bird in the journal BirdingAsia (PDF link) on Wednesday. 

"This bird is often called 'the biggest enigma in Indonesian ornithology,'" said Gusti Akbar in a Global Wildlife Conservation statement. "It's mind-blowing to think that it's not extinct and it's still living in these lowland forests, but it's also a little scary because we don't know if the birds are safe or how much longer they may survive."

Scientists are hoping to travel to Borneo to further study the bird and determine if it is a threatened or endangered species. New data could be used to recommend a status for the black-browed babbler on the International Union of Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species.

It will take a team effort to learn more about the rare bird. Said Global Wildlife Conservation's Barney Long, "Collaborations between conservationists, local communities and Indigenous peoples are crucial to learning about and saving these elusive species."