The red-vented bulbul is a common brown bird that can be found in many middle eastern, African, and Asian countries.
They are known for their red eyes that can be seen from a distance, but deep in the forest of Borneo lives bulbuls with cream colored eyes—a slight genetic difference that had been seen by many before, but not discovered as a new species until LSU Researcher and fifth year PhD candidate, Subir Shakya noticed this difference to be more than just a genetic variation.
On his process of discovering the differences between these birds, Shakya said, "One thing that stood out was the eye colors in those two groups of birds were different. So the next thing, logically, what we did was we added more samples to our analysis. And then we specifically sequenced genes from the white-eyed birds, and from some of the red-eyed birds. And exactly as we had predicted, the birds were splitting out based on eye color."
The difference between the genetic sequences of the birds proved them to be different species, as they reached far beyond the 3% required to define it as such.
Shakya originally thought this difference could be a mistake, until he was approached by one of his advisor’s former students from the Smithsonian, confirming that they too saw the differences.
"This is an amazing piece of detective work," Dr. Fred Sheldon, Director of the Museum of Natural Science, and Shakya's adviser said. "This white-eyed bird was collected, first discovered, hundreds of years ago... and nobody thought it was a big deal. It's been sitting right out there in plain sight since 1914, so it's really a cool piece of discovery.
The LSU Museum of Natural Science holds the world’s largest collections of samples of birds from these areas, and anyone who’s interested in them can check out the museum’s collection in Foster Hall.