A trilling tribute to late bird scientist

NUS Assistant Professor Frank Rheindt with a picture of the bird named after the late Professor Navjot Sodhi, who mentored many bird experts.
NUS Assistant Professor Frank Rheindt with a picture of the bird named after the late Professor Navjot Sodhi, who mentored many bird experts.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG

His former NUS students name new species after him

He was one of South-east Asia's most respected conservation biologists, and an avid bird scientist who died suddenly in 2011 from cancer at the age of 49.

Now, Professor Navjot Sodhi, a Canadian citizen who spent the last 16 years of his life teaching at the National University of Singapore (NUS), has been immortalised by some of his former students who have named a new bird species after him.

The bird, the Muscicapa sodhii, had been spotted in Indonesia's Sulawesi several times since 1997, but researchers were not able to confirm its existence as it looks very similar to another bird, the Muscicapa griseisticta, said Assistant Professor Frank Rheindt from the NUS Department of Biological Sciences.

It was only in 2012, 15 years after the first sighting, that researchers from the United States and Indonesia managed to get two dead specimens from a local bird hunter.

Dr Rheindt and his assistant analysed the DNA of the specimens and confirmed that it was a new species that had not been named.

The bird is a small, grey-brown flycatcher with dusky streaks on its breast and throat, and short wings.

Its song consists of "thin, very high-pitched whistles, chirps, twitters, glissandos, buzzy notes and trills of highly varied and often complex form".

Mr Yong Ding Li, an ecology doctoral student at the Australian National University and one of the researchers, said Prof Sodhi had played an important role in making the Sulawesi expeditions possible before his death.

The late professor introduced the researchers to his colleagues in Indonesia, gave them advice when they were interested in mounting an expedition to the Sulawesi highlands, and even wrote letters of endorsement for the research permit applications, said Mr Yong.

Mr Yong also surveyed insects and birds in Borneo with Prof Sodhi from 2006 to 2008, and had his honours-degree work supervised by him.

"He gave us a lot of independence but was always approachable. Academics aside, he also had a great sense of humour - not many days would pass without laughter or the hyena-like giggle of his emanating from the conservation ecology lab," he said.

The bird discovery was published in scientific journal PLOS One last week.

Aside from the bird, Prof Sodhi also had a snail, a fish, a crab species and a crab genus with several species named after him.

zengkun@sph.com.sg