How odd…

This is the sixth post in the series Specimen tales

Anand Krishnan writes ~

A fundamental objective of the classification and scientific description of animals is the need to understand how they all relate to one another. This is crucial to deciphering the evolutionary tree of life; to sustain our planet’s biodiversity, we must first understand how it came to be. In continuation of the last post’s musings on scientific names, I will here elaborate again on scientific names, this time, ones that reflect the supposed relationships or characters of the species under discussion. For example, the epithet corvina may reflect supposed crow-like characteristics, whereas the genus name Pseudocalyptomena, or ‘false Calyptomena” was given to an African bird of uncertain affinities that resembled a Calyptomena broadbill of Southeast Asia; this later turned out to be a correct assessment. Modern molecular techniques allow us to determine with relative speed just what the relationships of a bird are, but this was not always the case. Indeed, in the 19th century, species often popped up that were so unlike anything seen before, that ornithologists were often at a loss as to their affinities! The relationships of these species could sometimes result in a decades-long conundrum.

Perhaps no bird genus better exemplifies ornithological confusion better than the aptly named Paradoxornis, or the parrotbills. The first species named in this genus was Paradoxornis flavirostris, named by Gould in 1836, and known by the common name of Black-breasted or Gould’s Parrotbill. Writing later in the Birds of Asia, Gould stated “perhaps there is no one of the smaller Insessorial birds which has excited more interest among ornithologists”. Certainly, with its heavy-set, yellow bill (hence the common name), it’s superficial likeness to an insect eating babbler, and the fact that, at the time, nothing was known of its habits, it is easy to see why it was a source of great confusion. Over time, many other species in this fascinating genus were described (and will be treated at length in a future post), and with the advent of new knowledge, we now understand the Black-breasted Parrotbill a bit better. It is now known to be one of a relatively small number of parrotbills that are specialized on lowland reedswamps (whereas many others are bamboo jungle specialists), and to be restricted to the Brahmaputra floodplain in the Northeastern Indian Subcontinent. The relationships of the parrotbills themselves, however, are still in flux as more molecular data become available (and will, again, be treated further in a future post).

Sadly, the original ‘paradox bird’ is today gravely threatened due to the destruction of its habitat. It is currently known from only a handful of locations, and populations are declining. At times like this, it is best to remember how much we could learn about the evolution of life on earth from the diversity of strange and bizarre forms in existence, and to think about the irreparable damage of losing them.

Painting of Black-breasted parrotbill Paradoxornis flavirostris from John Gould’s Birds of Asia. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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