Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The naming of Gilbert's Honeyeater

“If you have not already honoured my poor name in your works, I know of no species that would delight me more than … this beautiful bird”, wrote John Gilbert to the famous ornithologist John Gould in 1844. Gould rebuffed him, “…as I have lately named a Pachycephala after you I cannot with propriety add your name to this new bird”. The beautiful new bird discussed was the now-extinct Paradise Parrot, one of Gilbert’s most famous discoveries, and the Pachycephala was of course Gilbert’s Whistler. However Gould had erred, not realising he had already described the whistler a few years earlier. Thus the honorific was relegated to the western subspecies P. inornata gilbertii, and it is only by chance that the English name of an Australian bird still honours his faithful collector John Gilbert.

More than 170 years later, the influential IOC World Bird List [1] did what Gould found so difficult, when on 23rd April 2015 they quietly renamed Melithreptus chloropsis as Gilbert’s Honeyeater. The same English name was adopted when the species was finally split on the eBird/Clements checklist in August 2015. The background to this name change reveals an interesting story of a Western Australian ornithological pioneers, and of modern-day debates about taxonomy and nomenclature.

Gilbert's Honeyeater Melithreptus chloropsis (subadult). Donnelley River, WA

When the IOC first ‘split’ the species, formerly the south-western race of White-naped Honeyeater Melithreptus lunatus, the name pencilled in was that coined by Gould himself in his famous The Birds of Australia series, ‘Swan River Honeyeater’. This taxonomic change was made in 2010 after a genetic study of honeyeaters [2] found that the two former subspecies of White-naped Honeyeater are not each others’ closest relatives, but that eastern nominate birds are instead more closely related to Tasmania’s Black-headed Honeyeater Melithreptus affinis. Both Gould and modern taxonomists also cite morphological differences including the western form’s larger size, longer and thicker bill, thicker black margin around chin, and different colouration of the bare skin above the eye, which is bright red in lunatus but white to pale blue-green in chloropsis (the Latin is often translated as ‘green-eyed’ and this was probably Gould’s intention, though it is probably more correctly translated as ‘green-looking’, thus may conceivably refer to plumage colouration).
The 'Swan River Honeyeater' plate from Gould's Birds of Australia. Gould was convinced the skin above the eye was pale green. (Reproduced here under fair use terms)

A juvenile Gilbert's Honeyeater near Margaret River WA. Very young birds do have a pale blue-green tint above the eye, but not the 'pale wine-yellow' skin imagined by Gould.

A recent Emu paper [3] by Gaynor Dolman (WA Museum) and Leo Joseph (CSIRO), having once again noted the substantial genetic distance and paraphyly between the former subspecies, included the unusually pointed statement, “…suitable English names need to be canvassed for M. chloropsis. This revealing comment obviously signalled the unsuitability of existing contenders, including Swan River Honeyeater. The widely-used local name ‘Western White-naped Honeyeater’ was ruled ineligible by the IOC, since it incorrectly implies a sister relationship with (Eastern) White-naped Honeyeater, which would also need to be renamed to comply with the strict nomenclatural rules of international lists such as the IOC World Bird List. But the resurrection of the old ‘Swan River Honeyeater’ had not gained favour and was viewed as a place-holder in need of revision. Apparently this name was never widely used, since scientific papers from the earliest volumes of Emu in the early 1900’s use ‘Western White-naped Honeyeater’ instead of Gould’s name, which even then would have been almost obsolete, both geographically (since the name referred to the former Swan River colony) and biologically (since it is long extinct locally on the Swan coastal plain) – see our previous blog post bemoaning the name. Many of Gould’s archaic names have of course long faded from use, or we would still be ticking such beauties as Lunulated Honeyeater, Plain-coloured Pachycephala, Tricoloured Ephthianura, and Ocellated Leipoa. Enter the new patronym ‘Gilbert’s Honeyeater’, the IOC footnotes stating “this name honors the pioneering work of John Gilbert in Western Australia”.

Swan River Honeyeater (left) from The birds of Australia, 1890 by Gracius Broinowski. The Swan River name faded from use not long after, since by the early 1900's scientific publications used Western White-naped Honeyeater
(Copyright Biodiversity Library, reproduced here under fair use terms) 

Gilbert was officially Gould’s collector and taxidermist, but was such a skilled naturalist that, to quote Serventy & Whittell’s Birds of Western Australia [4], 
“ [his] work in Western Australia was of so remarkably brilliant a character that his activities in the new colonies overwhelmingly obscure the work done by any other collector … [and] was done so methodically and enthusiastically, and to such good effect, that his achievements constitute the basis of our present-day knowledge of the bird-life of the southern part of the State”. 
Thanks to the detective work of Clem Fisher [5, 6], we now know that Gilbert arrived in the Swan River Colony on 6 March 1839, and by 13 March had collected a male specimen of M. chloropsis from somewhere ‘near Perth’. This specimen (ANSP 53262) now lies in the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, Philadelphia and is one of very few specimens there to retain Gilbert’s handwritten parchment field label. The designated lectotype from the same collection (ANSP 18300) was almost certainly also collected by Gilbert [7]. It is interesting today to imagine where these specimens were collected, perhaps in tuart forest near Perth’s Crawley Bay where it was reportedly quite abundant until at least the 1890s [8]. Or perhaps adjacent Mount Eliza (the modern-day King’s Park), where he collected a Singing Honeyeater and a Yellow-rumped Thornbill the following day [5]. It can only be speculated whether these were collected by Gilbert himself, or by his unnamed “native lad” who was apparently “an excellent shot”. By 20 May the prodigious Gilbert had already collected 330 bird specimens and 50 skeletons, all within ten miles of Perth; by the time of his unfortunate death in 1845 he had become the first collector of nearly 8% of Australia’s entire bird and mammal species [9]. 

An immature Gilbert's Honeyeater at Esperance WA. Note the slight blue-green tinge of the eye skin, but already less at this age than in juveniles. (Image from Flickr, by Ralph Green CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Despite his extraordinary achievements, very little was known of the man behind Gould’s many polite references to the observations of ‘Mr. Gilbert’ until the discovery of his old diaries and letters among Gould family effects, the result of some dogged detective work by the ornithological writer A.H. (Alec) Chisholm in 1938 [10]. These letters revealed the exceptionally diligent and methodical nature of Gilbert’s natural history work – “I have not at the same time forgotten to note down everything I can glean, respecting the Birds habits, manners, etc” – as well as cataloguing his movements and extensive collecting in his two visits to the new colony, including details of his famous discovery of the Noisy Scrub-bird at Drakes Brook in the Darling Scarp. From these letters we know, for example, that he shipped a box containing five specimens of the now-Gilbert’s Honeyeater to Gould on 1 Jan 1840. Gilbert’s Honeyeater joins Gilbert’s Whistler, Gilbert’s Potoroo Potorous gilbertii, and several other plants and animals to be named after him – not to mention Queensland’s Gilbert Range and Gilbert River - but will uniquely and very appropriately honour his remarkable ornithological achievements in south-western Western Australia.

A subadult Gilbert's Honeyeater at Donnelly River WA (note the remnant brown feathers on the nape). By this age the supraorbital skin is already virtually white.

[1] Gill, F & D Donsker (Eds). 2015. IOC World Bird List (v. 5.2). [Accessed 26 Apr 2015].
[2] Toon, A., Hughes, J. M., and Joseph, L. (2010). Multilocus analysis of honeyeaters (Aves: Meliphagidae) highlights spatio-temporal heterogeneity in the influence of biogeographic barriers in the Australian monsoonal zone. Molecular Ecology 19, 2980-94.
[3] Dolman, G., and Joseph, L. (2015). Evolutionary history of birds across southern Australia: structure, history and taxonomic implications of mitochondrial DNA diversity in an ecologically diverse suite of species. Emu 115, 35–48 
[4] Serventy, D.L. and Whittell, H.M. (1976). Birds of Western Australia (University of Western Australia Press: Perth).
[7] C. Fisher, pers. comm.
[8] Storr, G.M. and Johnstone, R.E. (1988). Birds of the Swan Coastal Plain and adjacent seas and islands. Records of the Western Australian Museum, Supplement No. 28.
[9] Fisher, C. (1997). John Gilbert’s Australian collections. Landscope 12(3), 36-41.
[10] Chislhom AH (1939). The story of John Gilbert. Emu 39(3), 156 - 176

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