Researcher profile Per Alström

Per Alström looking for birds in Niubeishan, Sichuan, China, on a research trip in June 2015. Photo: Zhao Chao

He has discovered seven new bird species

Peak season will soon begin for bird researcher Per Alström, who has discovered seven new bird species. He spends much of his time in nature in countries such as China, India and Vietnam, where he looks for well-known and unknown birds, and spends as a lot of time listening to their songs.

About five new bird species are discovered annually; they are then described and named in scholarly articles. Per Alström, professor at Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), has had the good fortune to discover new species seven times.

“The first species I helped to discover was actually found by chance in a museum collection in China. But that’s the only one we found that way; otherwise, we’ve been outdoors in nature observing and realised, ‘This is something new.’

Most were very similar to other species in appearance, but have had distinct songs, which is how we first discovered them. ‘I don’t recognize this song, this is different.’ Then when we caught sight of them, we discovered the differences in appearance as well.”

To reveal something new, you have to know the area’s fauna well and how the birds look and sound. So he and his colleagues have spent much of their time in Asia, primarily China and India, along with many other countries.

Per Alström in South Africa in December 2017.
The bird is a Rudd's Lark, only the second individual
ever ringed. Photo: Derek Engelbrecht

The birds are captured in order to take DNA samples, measurements and photographs. They are mainly studied on breeding grounds, where the birds sing.

“I make a lot of recordings. You have to be able to conduct a thorough comparison, which means you have to record the potentially new species and all similar birds. Then you might capture a number of birds to see if they differ in beak length or tail markings, for example.”

If the species proves to be new, he and his colleagues write a scholarly article and name the bird species. It is important to choose a name that does not already exist; otherwise it will not be valid. The process can therefore be quite complicated and take a long time. The first species Per Alström described had actually been described 70 years earlier, which they did not discover until after publication, so their proposed name no longer applies.

“However, I think our discovery is still equally valuable, even if our name isn’t used, because the species had been completely forgotten since it was named.”

In addition to the scientific name, all bird species also have an English and a Swedish name. One of the new bird species that Per Alström discovered is named after him in English: Alström’s Warbler, which is a relative of the Willow Warbler.

The fact that it is still possible to discover new species is not due to a rise in the number of bird species globally, but rather to an increase in knowledge about birds. Either they have existed somewhere where no one has ever been, or they have been overlooked due to similarity to another species. One example is Pallas’s Warbler – a bird that breeds in Siberia and occasionally goes astray in Sweden in the autumn.

“Before, people thought it had a huge distribution, throughout Siberia to northeast central China and all of the Himalayas. Now we know there are five different species in this complex – one in Siberia, three in China and one in the Himalayas. They differ in several respects, including in appearance, DNA and breeding habitat, but above all, they differ in their song.”

He recently helped to reconstruct the family tree of over 400 different bird species collectively known as “babblers”. They include a variety of different species with fun names, such as laughingthrushes, scimitar babblers, white-eyes and parrotbills.

For the project, researchers collected DNA samples, including both fresh from living birds and old samples from museum collections. Using DNA analysis, they have been able to reconstruct the family tree for all of the bird species. This comprehensive study involved many people and required significant time and computing power. He feels that the result is an excellent foundation for continued studies.

“Reconstructing the family tree of an entire, large group of birds is necessary if you want to see how different traits have evolved. For example, is a red head or beak shape unique to a certain group with a common origin, or has it evolved many times during the course of evolution? A family tree like this provides the basis for tonnes of exciting follow-up studies.”

Very few new bird species are found in the world, but even so, around five new species are discovered each year, almost all of them in South America.

“Asia also has unexplored areas, such as certain islands in Indonesia. In New Guinea, I could also imagine that there are undiscovered species, because some tough-to-reach areas still haven’t been visited by ornithologists.”

He is planning his next research trip. “Hopefully, it will be somewhere in East Africa to study larks. Otherwise, for quite a long time I’ve been in China in May, when song activity among the birds is high.”

This is also when the larks in East Africa are active, but when they breed depends on the rainy period. “The rainy period will probably be in May. You can’t know for sure, but hopefully I’ve chosen well.”

Annica Hulth
2019-05-07

Per Alström – facts:

Title: Professor of Ornithology at the Department of Ecology and Genetics at Uppsala University and the Swedish Species Information Centre, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

Positions: Chairman of the Scientific Committee of the Swedish Taxonomy Initiative, Committee for Swedish Animal Names, and the Swedish Systematics Association. Deputy editor-in-chief of Avian Research.

Free time: There is a great deal that I enjoy doing, but rarely have time for, such as being outside in Swedish nature (especially birdwatching!), sailing, skiing (slalom) and skating, running with a friend, spending time with my family and friends etc.

A good day at work: On a perfect day at work, I wake up in a tent somewhere in nature in Asia or Africa and then spend the entire day researching exciting birds. In Uppsala, it’s a day when I feel that my research is flowing well, but I also have a class to teach at which I have good interactions with students; lunch and coffee with colleagues and students are also important.

Last book read: Last book started: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn In the First Circle We’ll see if I ever finish… Hans Rosling’s Factfulness is up next…

Hidden talent: Can climb a lamp pole without any ropes or tools...

Makes me angry: That we are eradicating so much global biodiversity – and ultimately even ourselves – and that this is still neglected by or unknown to most decision-makers!

Makes me happy: Being out in nature and getting to experience the amazing biodiversity, and also when I meet lovely people (which is every day!).