AUTHOR BLOG: “Bird-in-the-middle”—a mid-elevation tropical species stuck in limbo

Fabio Berzaghi & John Bates

Linked paper: Comparative niche modeling of two bush-shrikes (Laniarius) and the conservation of mid-elevation Afromontane forests of the Albertine Rift by F. Berzaghi, J.E. Engel, A.J. Plumptre, H. Mugabe, D. Kujirakwinja, S. Ayebare, and J.M. Bates, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:4, October 2018.


A search through the tropical forest literature for “mid-elevation forests” reveals relatively few results compared to a search for high-elevation or lowland forests, and looking at a map of protected areas and land cover in mountainous tropical regions makes it clear why. For example, in the African Albertine Rift, most national parks tend to be in high elevation areas where slopes are steep and land conversion for human use is more difficult. As we move down the slopes, the habitat starts degrading until we arrive in the lowlands, where almost no intact habitat remains, particularly on the eastern side of the Rift.

In 2010, Voelker et al. described a new species of bush-strike, the Willard’s Sooty Boubou (Laniarius willardi), and noticed that this species occurs at lower elevations than its sister species, the Mountain Sooty Boubou (Lanarius poensis). We were thus wondering how much habitat was left for this mid-elevation species, knowing that in this region lower-elevation forests are degraded or have been converted to agriculture. Using niche modeling and land cover data, we discovered that these two species of birds reside at different elevations across a small portion of montane Africa, overlapping only in part. Unfortunately, the habitat for L. willardi has been greatly reduced, because mid-elevation forests are outside protected areas and national parks. L. willardi may not be able to move to higher elevations, as its preferred environmental conditions are between 1200 and 1900 meters; a large portion of its suitable habitat is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Itombwe Plateau, technically a protected area but problematic to protect.

The plight of L. willardi is probably similar to that of many other mid- and low-elevation species in the area. Even though our results are not such good news for birds and other mid-elevation species in the region, we also want to highlight the importance of scientific collaborations with local researchers and conservation units. These collaborations help us define habitats and species in need of attention. Importantly, the authors of our study are a combination of Africans and non-Africans, with a range of research foci including ornithology and conservation but also niche modeling and bioinformatics. The data used in our study are based on both museum specimens (historical and modern) and modern field observations, which were carried out by teams that always included African students and scientists from the countries where the data were collected. Conservation can only be successful in the long run if in-country capacity for conservation science is developed around the world.

The discovery of L. willardi and its description were made possible through modern scientific collection during collaborations between local Albertine Rift ornithologists and the Field Museum. Data from such modern collections will help clarify lingering concerns in the taxonomic community (particularly Birdlife International and the IUCN) in regards to the status of these two species relative to other black boubous occurring far to the west in the Cameroonian Highlands. Work like this has great value, because it allows highlighting issues of conservation concern at both regional and local scales. Each region of the Albertine Rift has its own history and ongoing issues with deforestation, instability and protection. There is no “one size fits all” solution to conservation in the Albertine Rift, but this paper helps emphasize that there is regional expertise in the form of researchers and conservation professionals who will make a difference. Opportunities to work with international colleagues to combine conservation and science, as in this paper, will be instrumental in building efforts to protect the incredible biota of this wonderful region.