Based on the numbers seen at sea, both off Australia and New Caledonia, the population of the New Caledonian storm petrel (Fregetta lineata) is in the order of 100-1,000 pairs and almost certainly globally threatened.
Storm petrels are about 20 species of seabirds in the family Hydrobatidae, or sometimes considered as Oceanitidae, part of the order Procellariiformes.
Ranging in length from about 13 to 25 cm (5.1-9.8 inches), these smallest of seabirds are dark gray or brown, sometimes lighter below, and often with a white rump.
True seabirds, storm petrels spend most of their time out at sea and only return to land to breed.
They feed on planktonic crustaceans and small fish picked from the surface, typically while hovering. The flight is fluttering and sometimes bat-like.
“There are currently a little over 10,000 known species of birds on the planet and, on average, one to five new ones are discovered annually,” said Dr. Vincent Bretagnolle of CNRS and La Rochelle Université and his colleagues from South Africa, France, and Switzerland.
“Among the 430 species of seabirds, a third are petrels, close cousins of the albatross.”
“Because petrels are nocturnal, discreet, and primarily nest on secluded islands, we still know little about many of them.”
The newly-identified petrel species belongs to the austral storm petrels genus Fregetta and is endemic to New Caledonia.
“The first sighting of the New Caledonian storm petrel was in 2008 off southern New Caledonia, with additional observations there in subsequent years,” the authors said.
“The birds look similar to the New Zealand storm petrel (Fregetta maoriana), but are larger and were thus presumed to be an undescribed taxon.”
In their new study, the researchers examined several museum and new specimens of the genus Fregetta.
“We reviewed taxonomic deliberations over five historic specimens of streaked storm petrels — black-and-white storm petrels distinctly marked with dark streaks on a white belly,” they explained.
“Three of them belong to the recently rediscovered New Zealand storm petrel.”
“We studied six biometrics of the other two identical-looking specimens, one from Samoa, the other from the Marquesas Islands, as well as of a third ‘new’ specimen collected off Brisbane, and other Fregetta taxa.”
According to the team, the new species breeds in New Caledonia, but the Marquesas Islands and Samoa are in its non-breeding range.
“The New Caledonian storm petrel might breed on New Caledonia islets in the unexplored Bouloupari Lagoon — or inland, possibly in the Tontouta River valley, which is the breeding territory of another species of petrel,” the scientists said.
“Based on the number of individuals sighted at sea, the total population may be in the order of 100 to 1,000 pairs, and now critically endangered.”
“Thus, it is urgent that the breeding grounds of the New Caledonian storm petrel be found, to immediately take action for its protection.”
The discovery is reported in a paper published March 11, 2022 in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club.
Vincent Bretagnolle et al. 2022. Fregetta lineata (Peale, 1848) is a valid extant species endemic to New Caledonia. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 142 (1): 111-130; doi: 10.25226/bboc.v142i1.2022.a6
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