Swedish and Indian researchers on a trip to the Himalayas of northeastern India noticed that brown birds that were believed to belong to the same species were actually singing different songs.

Those living in the forests or lowlands had a sweet, melodious song. But the ones in the rocky highlands above the treeline had a much harsher, scratchier melody.

The scientists wondered if the birds known as the plain-backed thrush were actually two different species. If this were the case, it would be an exciting discovery because only three new species of birds had been found in India since 1949.

The effort to solve the avian mystery eventually led the scientists Per Alström and Shashank Dalvi to the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, home to one of the largest collections of bird specimens in the U.S.

Getting permission to collect birds in India is difficult, so the scientists couldn’t get a tissue sample in the field for a DNA test. Fortunately, the museum at U-M had a specimen that matched the sweet-singing species that lived in the forest.  

“We had to cut a small toe pad from our bird and send it to Sweden. The DNA sampling from this bird conclusively proved that it’s actually two species,” said Janet Hinshaw, manager of the bird collection at the museum at U-M.

After samples from other museums provided further confirmation, the new species was named Zoothera salimalii honoring the late Indian ornithologist Salim Ali and the bird was formally described in January in the journal Avian Research. Its proposed English name is Himalayan forest thrush.  The specimen at U-M was the closest match to the new species and has been designated the “holotype” — the best example of the species when it was first described and named.

There are more than 200,000 specimens of birds about two-thirds of the world’s species at U-M’s museum. They are lined up in neat rows in thousands of drawers in hundreds of large white cabinets. Most of the specimens have had their internal organs removed, and their bodies are filled with cotton and sutured, preserving them for scientists who visit from all over the world.   

“These collections provide a record of the animals and plants that were living in particular places at particular times,” Hinshaw said. “We can find out what genetic changes have taken place over time as they have adapted to changes in their environments. We can obtain information on what they ate and where they migrated.”

The sweet-singing brown thrush is one of the 30,000 birds from India that are in the bird collection at U-M, one of the biggest outside of India. The specimen was collected in the northeastern state of Assam by Thakur Rup Chand in 1954 and has been in the collection for more than 60 years.

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