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Cambodian Tailorbird discovered in Phnom Penh

A male Cambodian tailorbird, a bird only recently discovered by scientists withing the city limits of Phnom Penh.
Ashish John/WCS

More than 150 years after Charles Darwin's voyage of discovery aboard the Beagle, scientists around the world continue to follow his lead in identifying new species. Most of these discoveries take place deep in the Amazon and other remote areas; to discover a new species right in plain sight, amongst the 1.5 million residents of a bustling capital city, is rare.

And yet, officials in Cambodia's Phnom Penh recently discovered a new species of bird.

The Cambodian Tailorbird (Orthotomus chaktomuk) was first spotted in January 2009, when four Tailorbirds were photographed as part of a routine avian flu check. At the time, the birds were misidentified as Ashy Tailorbirds -- a similar species. When it was spotted at a construction site in January 2012, scientists took a closer look, soon realizing that the bird is indeed a distinct, unknown species. Since June 2012, officials have spotted more than 100 Tailorbirds in nine additional locations.

In an online advance edition of the Oriental Bird Club's journal, Forktail 29, scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and BirdLife International describe the Tailorbird as wren-sized with a grey coat and pale underbelly. The throats of the males are peppered with black streaks and their rounded tails feature white tips.

The defining feature is its cinnamon-rufous crown, a sharp contrast to the birds white cheeks.

The boisterous birds let out a variety of loud, lengthy calls. While several have been spotted in Phnom Penh, the species thrives in low elevation, humid floodplains along the Mekong River and its tributaries.

The Cambodian Tailorbird is the first species to be discovered in Cambodia since scientists identified the Mekong wagtail in 2001. Other recent discoveries in Indochina include several babbler species in Vietnam and the bare-faced bulbul in Laos. The last time a species was discovered near a large city was in 2005, near Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The WCS and BirdLife International scientists recommend that the Cambodian Tailorbird be classified as "Near Threatened," mainly because of the region it inhabits.

"Asia contains a spectacular concentration of bird life, but is also under sharply increasing threats ranging from large scale development projects to illegal hunting," said Steve Zack, WCS bird conservation coordinator, in a statement. "Further work is needed to better understand the distribution and ecology of this exciting newly described species to determine its conservation needs."


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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.