10 November 2010

Smithsonian Scientist Investigates Original Nomenclature of a Warbler

In an investigation worthy of a detective novel, Storrs L. Olson has thoroughly considered the origin of the historic name attributed to the warbler now known as the Common Yellowthroat.

He wrote two articles which describe in detail some historical confusion regarding the type locality, and subsequent identification and naming of this species, and thoroughly discusses the misidentification leading to the application of the name "yellowthroat" to the species now carrying that name.

Storrs - a Curator Emeritus of the Divison of Birds at the Smithsonian Institution - had "been digging into the the original descriptions of various North American birds, and started off by tracking down a few sparrows and warblers."

His first article - published in 2009 - defines where the first known specimen originated, and which provided the basis for any subsequent recognition regarding type locality and origin of specimens, which is an important aspect for each species which occurs in North America.

Storrs indicates that the type specimen for the "Mary-Land Yellow-throat" came from Carolina, and further refines the locality as likely being Charleston.

In a second article published this year, Storrs explains in detail how the now well-recognized Common Yellowthroat was first named.

It was designated the "Mary-Land Yellow-Throat" in 1702 by James Petiver, a British enthusiast and collector of natural history specimens from throughout the known world, in his publication Gazohpylacii Naturae & Artis, issued at London. The species was illustrated based upon a specimen sent from Maryland by a Rev. Hugh Jones. Storrs also notes that Petiver depicted two other species from North America, the Northern Cardinal and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, the latter also from Maryland and collected by Jones.

Storrs' analysis of characteristics of the plumage shown in Petiver’s illustration, indicate that it was actually a Yellow-throated Warbler, although the specimen has long ago disappeared. The article includes the historic depiction and makes a side-by-side comparison with a similarly prepared skin of this species, noting which features match.

Yellow-throated Warbler illustration in Petiver's work.

When George Edwards published his "Gleanings of Natural History" in 1758, the species illustrated - based on a specimen from Carolina - was clearly what is now known as the Common Yellowthroat, and he used the name Maryland Yellowthroat, thinking, as Storrs points out, mistakenly, that his yellowthroat was the same species as Petiver's yellowthroat. The French ornithologist Brisson also referred to this species as "Figuier de Mariland" in 1760.

In 1766, Carl Linneaus, whose works constitute the beginnings of scientific nomenclature, applied the name Turdus trichas to the birds described by Petiver, Edwards, and Brisson. At that point, his species name was a composite, being based, as we know now from Olson’s papers, on two species, the Common Yellowthroat and the Yellow-throated Warbler. Therefore, Olson designated Edward’s description as what is known as the "lectotype" of the species, in order to preserved the scientific name trichas for the Common Yellowthroat.

Petiver's designation - Maryland Yellowthroat - was the English name list used for Geothlypis trichas in the first checklist of North American birds, issued by the American Ornithologists' Union, in 1886. And even though the original use of the term "Yellowthroat" actually applied to the Yellow-throated Warbler, it is now used for an entirely different group of species.

The findings of this research "will result in some minor adjustments in future checklists but otherwise is only an interesting historical aside," Storr said. He also noted that the Smithsonian Institution Library is "one of the best in the world for resolving issues concerning the nomenclature of birds."

"Cape-Cardinal" as illustrated in 1702 in Petiver's work.