Inti Tanager: Something New Under the Sun
Ecclesiastes 1:9 laments that there's nothing new under the sun. But last week, it turns out, we not only discovered something new, but ironically named it after that same cynical sun.
On October 10, 2000, Daniel Lane and Gary Rosenberg, both masters-degree ornithologists from LSU, were leading a tropical birding tour in Southeastern Peru when a distinct flash of yellow caught their attention. In a defining moment, they found themselves in the presence of a bird that neither guide had ever encountered. They were only able to render a sketch and a 9-second recording of its distinctive song before it disappeared into the cloud-forest canopy, not to be seen again for another three years.
It’s not surprising for most of us to see something new when birding, but Lane literally wrote the book on the birds of Peru, and he and Rosenberg make a living guiding birders to the rare gems of the region. This elusive bird, found near Manu National Park along one of the most well-traveled birding routes in the country, wasn’t just a new life-lister for them. It wasn’t in the book at all—something entirely new and unexpected. And despite numerous attempts to relocate it, both with and without tour groups, this fleeting glimpse would not repeat itself until October 2003, and the world would have to wait until the following June for its first specimen to be collected.
It wasn’t until December 2011 that Harvard biologist Frank Rheindt came upon an entire breeding colony of the mystery bird in a town near La Paz, Bolivia. Lane and others soon arrived to collect observations, recordings, and a small set of specimens. And last week—21 years after that brief encounter— the Inti Tanager (Heliothraupis oneilli) was added to the official list of Planet Earth’s inhabitants.
“Inti” means “sun” in the local Quechua language. As in, “bright yellow.” Or as in “that which there is nothing new under.”
A new species. Imagine that. Last week’s announcement truly stirred my imagination and should humble anyone who thinks we’ve got this world pretty well figured out. A bird that presumably came into being at the dawn of time with a simple divinely-spoken “let there be” has proliferated for thousands of generations right under our noses, unbeknownst to anyone until that one careless bird twenty-one years ago blew their cover (I have to imagine that he still hears about it from his friends: “Way to go, Carl.”). Centuries ago, Europeans embarked on a voyage of discovery, crossing oceans, braving ice flows, and scaling peaks just “because it is there” (to quote George Mallory, whose frozen remains are now a part of the “there” near Everest’s summit). We longed to discover “something new under the sun.” Heading into the third millennium, we might have smugly assumed that we’d mapped this planet extensively enough, climbed every mountain, forded every stream. And then a yellow songbird jumps from the Peruvian canopy and tweets, “Surprise!”
I wondered when scientists had last identified a brand-new bird and was surprised to discover with some quick googling that it’s more common than you’d expect. In 2019 a unique species of flowerpecker was discovered in Borneo and dubbed the Spectacled Flowerpecker. That same year two members of the white-eye family in the Wakatobi Islands were declared new species: the Wakatobi White-eye and the Wangi-Wangi White-eye (which might truly be the most enjoyable bird name to say out loud. Go ahead. Try it.). The Alagoas Black-throated Trogon in Brazil was distinguished from near relatives as its own species earlier this year. And in a biological Yahtzee moment, a six-week expedition to Sulawesi resulted in last year’s announcement that ten new birds—five species and five sub-species—had been added to the planet’s bird tally, a trip that’s been called “the biggest avian discovery in more than a century.”
Glory and Wonder
Two lessons we can glean from all these discoveries: 1) You should probably pay a little bit more attention the next time you’re in Sulawesi. 2) We have not yet begun to plumb the depths of God’s creative wonder.
If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a bird lives and moves and has its being in a South American forest, and there’s no one there to see it, does it still give glory to God? The Inti Tanager is a simply beautiful bird, from its saffron-yellow chest to its Sharpie-precise black eyebrow to its shaggy burnt-orange crest feathers. This inspired set of colors sat shyly in a Peruvian jungle for thousands of years, glorifying its maker before we ever realized it existed—a clandestine testimony to a glorious designer.
I know many readers may not accept this concept as self-evidently, believing instead that this bird, like every other living thing, was borne of adaptive variations carrying on their genetic benefits over millions of years of fine-tuning. The result is a species at the mercy of its DNA, purposeless except maybe for the task of propagation. But look closer at the canvas, taking care not to miss the brushstrokes of the artist as you try to describe the chemistry of the paints. What if creation has a why and not just a how? Allowing that possibility, doesn’t it make sense to start with why? After all, as with anything in life, why informs how far better than the other way around. Form follows function.
And so, starting with why:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)
Every time we give a name to a new bird genus or species, creation is pouring forth the speech of a glorious God. His handiwork proclaims the reality of his hands. Matter proclaims what matters. And every now and then, our God pokes an undiscovered wonder out of the tree canopy to “pour forth his speech” and “reveal knowledge” and humble us with the discovery. Granted, the created world can’t tell us everything a person needs to know to find themselves safe and sound in that declarative heaven. But it shows us enough to leave us without excuse (Romans 1:20).
Solomon, the likely writer of Ecclesiastes, was jaded enough with the dead-ends of life to see that no new discovery was an end in itself. Instead, his inner voyage of discovery left him with the conclusion that life only made sense when oriented around God as the ultimate Good. All the joys of life—work, play, family, fortune—were echoes of a better world where perfect justice and love sit firmly on the throne. Any new what still bears an age-old why, a compass needle pointing to God’s true north.
In that sense, there is nothing new. But we have not yet exhausted our opportunities to see God glorified. And so his mercies, we are told, are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). We don’t need a new species to gain a new appreciation for the grandeur of God; we simply need to pay attention to those daily discoveries already revealed. If you were to scan attentively tomorrow morning for evidence of God’s glory, worthiness, and care for you, you would see treasures flying out of the trees left and right, goodness right under our nose but overlooked because we didn’t lift our heads to behold.
Penguins in Heaven
One of the most theological conversations I’ve ever had was at Sea World. A group of fellow seminary students and I rode the slow-moving walkway through the indoor penguin exhibit. Enthralled by some spontaneously zany penguin-antics (I mean, who doesn’t love those wacky rapscallions?), one of my friends asked, “Do you think there will be penguins in heaven?” The next half-hour we gazed at penguins and contemplated eternity.
Our conclusion? Admittedly we ended up with more questions than answers. But on this we were certain: how could we possibly expect the God of 10,000 known birds (and counting, apparently) to be less creative in the new heavens and new earth than he’s been in the old one? What forest gems will he preserve when Jesus makes all things new? And what might he create to freshly show forth that glory to us? What newness awaits? Jesus said that what a disciple offers the world is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom treasures both old and new (Matthew 13:52). Might our Savior also apply that parable biologically, wowing us with vegetarian lions (Isaiah 65:25) and talking eagles (Revelation 8:13)? Questions without ready answers, I admit. But questions borne out of awestruck admiration for a creative God who made the sun and the feather and the color yellow.
Who knows what wonders may walk out of eternity’s forest? But whatever appears, its telos—its why—will be the same as every atom of creation, whether seen by human eye or not: to make known the glory of the King in the center of it all.