Here's something amazing: a new bird species has been discovered in the U.S. for the first time since 1974. Unfortunately, the discovery wasn't a live bird. It was actually a museum sample collected in 1963, and the scientists who discovered it fear it may already be extinct or threatened with extinction.

The specimen was collected on Midway Atoll nearly 40 years ago, at which time it was identified as a little shearwater (Puffinus assimilis). But Peter Pyle, an ornithologist at the Institute for Bird Populations in Marin County, Calif., examined the sample several years ago while assembling a monograph on Hawaiian birds and thought it might be another species, the Boyd's shearwater (P. boydi). But even that assessment didn't seem right to Pyle, since the sample had a shorter wingspan and tail than the Boyd's.

DNA analysis by scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., revealed that it was indeed a new species. It has since been named Bryan's shearwater (P. bryani). The discovery is detailed in the May 2011 issue of The Condor.

The discovery of this new species reveals less information than is needed for effective conservation, unfortunately. No one knows where the birds live or breed, how many there are, or what could be done to preserve them. "We don't believe that Bryan's shearwaters breed regularly on Midway or other northwestern Hawaiian islands, based on the extensive seabird work in these islands during the Pacific Seabird Project," Pyle said in a prepared statement.

Locating the species in the wild is the next important step. "If we can find where this species breeds, we may have a chance to protect it and keep it from going extinct," said Smithsonian predoctoral fellow Andreanna Welch, who helped conduct the DNA analysis that revealed the new species.

A second Bryan's shearwater specimen was collected on Midway in 1990 (in fact, that's the bird you see in the photograph accompanying this article), and Pyle theorizes that other, unidentified birds seen around the Pacific could be the same one.

Photo by Reginald David, courtesy of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park