Rail New to Science Highlights Need for Conservation

In western Madagascar, scientists surveying the area’s flora and fauna found a new bird: a forest-dwelling rail. Its size, plumage, and genetics differentiate it from its eastern cousin, making it unique to the Beanka Forest, an isolated and largely intact part of the country’s remaining western dry forests.

“This bird they’ve known about for decades, but no one has been able to go find it and get a specimen of it. It’s not a common thing at all, and it’s really hard to find,” said researcher Nick Block, a graduate student at the University of Chicago who is based at the city’s Field Museum.

Block, who worked on the molecular genetics for the study, partnered with scientists from the University of Antananarivo and Association Vahatra. The team surveyed the forest’s 34,500 acres in 2009, finding several new species. They chose to name the rail Mentocrex beankaensis for the area where it lives. They published their findings in a recent issue of the scientific journal Zootaxa. To conservationists, the study illustrates why the ecosystem is so valuable.

Only three percent of Madagascar’s western dry forests still cover the land, according to the World Wildlife Fund. The Benka Forest sits on exposed limestone formations with sharp peaks, where biologists have recently discovered a number of new plants and animals. The reason may be that the land is protected by the Association Biodiversity Conservation Madagascar, with funding from Bioculture (Maritius), Ltd., a company that restores the forest and began programs for the socio-economic development of nearby communities in 2007.

"Even after many decades of research, nature is always full of surprises, even for organisms such as birds that have been intensively studied,” said Marie Jeanne Raherilalao, a professor at the University of Antananarivo and Association Vahatra, who is part of the team. “This underlies the importance of field research and biotic inventories."

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