For a decade, Ed Scholes and Tim Laman have trekked across New Guinea on the trail of the Superb Bird-of-Paradise. You know the one: Footage of the spectacular display, where the male hops back and forth on a log and snaps its wings to impress a female, was captured in David Attenborough's Planet Earth series. The male's super-black feather cape fans out into an oval, against which a fluorescent blue smiley face—really, the bird's chest and crown feathers—glows bright. But Scholes and Laman, a pair of scientists and wildlife photojournalists who founded the Birds-of-Paradise Project at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, wanted to snag some footage of their own.
The Superb Bird-of-Paradise is widespread across New Guinea, a large island just north of Australia that happens to be shaped like a bird. But for years, it evaded their lenses. Finally, in 2016, as they traveled through the western part of the island—the part that looks like a bird's head, and known as the Vogelkop Peninsula—they stumbled upon a male displaying on a log.
As they scrambled to set up their equipment, Scholes felt something about the bird was a little off. It displayed a super-black background, with black hole-like feathers, like a Superb Bird-of-Paradise, and sported a blue fluorescent face, too. And yet: "There’s something totally different about what it’s doing," Scholes recalls. "I couldn’t pinpoint what it was."
When he reviewed the footage later, he realized: The bird they captured had its own, distinct dance. He slid around, moving his head and shoulders while keeping his hips flat. "He almost looks like a wind-up toy rotating around the female," Scholes says. In comparison, the widespread Superb Bird-of-Paradise hops and double-snaps his wings to his own beat.
Scholes and Laman described the birds' mating dance in a new paper, published this week in PeerJ, naming Superb Birds-of-Paradise living in the island's Vogelkop Peninsula as a separate species. Already, Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise (Lophorina niedda) has been added to the popular birding app eBird—which is run by Cornell Lab, where Scholes and Laman work—so the finding is about as official as you can get.
"The bouncing smiley face bird-of-paradise has been very popular, so it’s really cool that it’s now joined by the sliding frowny face, to use the technical term," says renowned ornithologist and field-guide author Kenn Kaufman, who's also Audubon's field editor.
Their new work, Scholes is quick to point out, isn't the first to find differences between the species. Last year, researchers published an analysis of birds-of-paradise and riflebirds (all members of the genera Lophorina and Ptiloris). They compared DNA and morphology of museum specimens collected throughout New Guinea and found significant differences in Superb Birds-of-Paradise found in the Vogelkop Peninsula, which is separated from the rest of the island by a mountain range. That research team suggested that this was a new species.
For the last decade, at least, people familiar with New Guinea's birds also had their suspicions. The females from the peninsula have a fluffy black head, while those across the rest of the island have a whitish head with a dark eyestripe. Most Superb Birds-of-Paradise have a raspy call; but those living on the western side of the Arfak Mountains emit a "tonal whistle," in Scholes' words. The peninsula is home to more than a dozen other endemics, including four unique species of birds-of-paradise, so it's only reasonable to suspect that it could host its own form of the Superb Bird-of-Paradise, too.
The new footage confirms that the western species has a unique mating display. Its black "background" is crescent-shaped, and the blue breast feathers that form the "mouth" point downward and droop—turning that smile into a frown, or maybe a mustache. And when dancing, the Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise doesn't bounce at all. "He does a really fast side-shuffle with his feet," Scholes says, which gives the impression of smooth sliding. He snaps his wings as he goes, but it has no connection to his movement. The overall effect is quite different. (Watch an in-depth comparison video here.)
The paper that came out last year, comparing DNA and morphology of birds-of-paradise, had enough robust evidence to support naming this new species, Kaufman says. But the behavior is still important to document. "Because the courtship behavior is such a big part of the personality of birds-of-paradise, it’s really a neat confirmation," he says. "It would be really great to see a video of the form in eastern New Guinea that is probably also a separate species."
That's right: It's likely that there's a third species of Superb Bird-of-Paradise lurking in New Guinea, according to the genetics work. But no vocal recordings or observations of its mating display exists—yet. Visiting the eastern side of the island is a high priority for Scholes and Laman, but they wouldn't mind if an enthusiastic birder beat them to it. "You don’t have to be a scientist to get sound recordings or observe the display," Scholes says. "That should be exciting for everybody."