white eyes

A bird recently discovered in the Solomon Islands is a member of the White Eyes (Zosteropidae) family that evolves more rapidly than any other bird.

The newly discovered species has been named Vanikoro White Eye. It was found on the tiny island of Ranongga, and is thought to only live there.  

Genetic research has shown what two scientists suspected 80 years ago: that there are different species of White Eyes on separate islands in the Solomons. Sometimes the islands are only 2-3 kilometers apart and yet they have their own species of White Eye. One of the researchers, Rob Moyle from the University of Kansas said this of their initial investigation, “As we started to compile the data, we were shocked…White-eye species from across the family’s range had strikingly similar gene sequences, indicating a recent origin and incredibly rapid diversification.”

Moyle collaborated with Dr. Chris Filardi and Dr. Jared Diamond. Diamond actually had worked with the original scientist (Ernest Mayr) who first noted the difference between the White Eyes when visting the Solomons decades ago. DNA analysis of many White Eyes species by Filardi and his team showed that they can generate about  2-3 new species every million years.

Filardi commented on the research, “There’s something special about these birds. White eyes quickly diverge into new species across water gaps as narrow as a couple of kilometers- gaps that other birds easily bridge to maintain gene flow.” In the Solomons alone there are thirteen species of White Eyes. Because of its rapid capacity for diversification, some call White Eyes the Great Speciator. Over 100 species of the bird are distributed throughout the world.

Animals thought to have a higher rate of speciation are the Cichlid fish in Africa, and the Tuatara, a reptile that lived at the same time as some dinosaurs. Recently a baby Tuatara was found on mainland New Zealand.

(Author’s note:The Jared Diamond referenced here is also the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel).

Image Credits: 1. Close-up: Dr. Chris Filardi, American Musuem of Natural History
2.  Tri-species illustration, BirdLife International 3. Vanikoro White Eyes in Tree, Dr. Guy Dutson