So South Australian Golden Whistlers are really Western Whistlers?

Australian Golden whistlers have a complicated taxonomic history with identifiable forms across the continent being at various times considered separate species, subspecies of a single widespread species or, most recently, more than one species, though still incorporating several subspecies. Different authorities do not always agree on the validity of name combinations which has added to the confusion.

The South Australian Golden Whistler, a familiar sight in habitats ranging from stringybark forest to mallee woodlands in SA (and western Victoria), was originally described as a full species, Pachycephala fuliginosa, but most recently has generally been considered to be a form of the Eastern Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis) by most authorities, including the one that iNaturalist derives its bird taxonomy from. Thus, the full name of the SA form in iNat is Pachycephala pectoralis subspecies fuligens.

A recent study (Joseph et al. 2020), however, has found that South Australian Golden Whistlers are morphologically and genetically much closer to birds from SW Western Australia than to golden whistlers from eastern Australia and are essentially indistinguishable from western birds. The WA population has, for some time, been considered to be a separate species, the Western Whistler, Pachycephala occidentalis. The researchers’ conclusion is that SA birds should be considered a subspecies of the Western Whistler rather than of the Golden Whistler. So, if the Western Whistler and the South Australian Golden Whistler are one and the same species, how will this affect its scientific name? The principle of priority observed in zoological nomenclature means that the first name validly applied to a taxon is the one that is retained. In this instance the epithet ‘fuliginosa’ was applied to this species before the name ‘occidentalis’, so it takes priority – the Western Whistler and the SA Golden Whistler will become Pachycephala fuliginosa with SA birds being P. fuliginosa subsp. fuliginosa (referred to as the nominate subspecies) and WA birds being known as P. fuliginosa subsp. occidentalis (the former species epithet being retained as the subspecies name). There are no set principles for deciding common names but ‘Western Whistler’ (or ‘Western Golden Whistler’) is still appropriate for South Australian birds when referring to the species as a whole, and perhaps ‘South Australian Western Whistler’ could be applied to the SA subspecies.

That all said, don’t rush off to reidentify all the SA and western Victorian iNat observations as Western Whistler just yet. This taxonomic change will need to be adopted by the bird names authority that iNat follows (Clements Checklist) before the iNat taxonomy will change. When it is updated the changes should flow through automatically based on geography. Unfortunately, the Clements Checklist, being US based (Cornell Ornithology Lab), can be very slow to update Australian bird names so it might be quite a while before we actually see the change here in iNat. In the meantime, if you want to be on top of your game, taking the IDs of SA observations right through to subspecies level can help. When the swaps are eventually made in iNat, Pachycephala pectoralis subsp. fuligens IDs will be directly swapped for the new Pachycephala fuligens (Western Whistler) taxon record.

Click on this link if you’d like to read the abstract to the Joseph et al. (2020) paper summarising the study -

Posted by rfoster rfoster, May 08, 2021 12:25 PM


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