Proposal (121) to South American Classification Committee
Split Piculus litae from P. leucolaemus
Effect on South American CL: This would elevate a taxon to species rank that that we treat as a subspecies of an existing species.
Background: The taxon litae of the Chocó was formerly (e.g., Cory 1919) considered a separate species from Piculus leucolaemus. Peters (1948) treated them as conspecific, and this was followed by many subsequent authors (e.g., Meyer de Schauensee 1970, Short 1982, Hilty & Brown 1986).
New information: Recently, litae was treated as a species ("Lita Woodpecker") by Sibley & Monroe (1990), Winkler et al. (1995), Ridgely & Greenfield (2001), and Winkler & Christie (2002). The only published statements that I can find to support this split are as follows:
from Winkler et al. (1995):
" ... this species is very similar to White-throated Woodpecker [P. leucolaemus] and was until recently regarded as conspecific with it, but the two are separated by the Andes chain, Lita being found on the western side."
from Ridgely & Greenfield (2001):
"P. litae of w. Colombia and nw. Ecuador is here regarded as a monotypic species separate from P. leucolaemus based on its smaller size, different plumage pattern, and disjunct distribution."
from Winkler & Christie (2002):
"Frequently lumped with P. leucolaemus, but differs significantly in plumage details; possibly not even closely related."
In fact, litae resembles P. flavigula in some aspects of its plumage as much as it does P. leucolaemus; specimens of litae from southwestern Colombia have been misidentified as an "undescribed subspecies" of P. flavigula by Winkler et al. (1995), as pointed out by Winkler & Christie (2002). What was illustrated in Winkler et al. (1995) as litae is evidently not litae ... or was it? We have a specimen from Nariño that looks very much like what Winkler et al. (1995) illustrated as litae (a darker-faced bird with almost no yellow in face. We also have a specimen from Pichincha that looks similar to the male litae illustrated in Winkler & Christie (2002), but paler-throated.
Confused? I am. Only one named taxon in this complex is supposed to occur in W Colombia - NW Ecuador. I assume that Winkler & Christie (2002) have tracked down type description to determine that their 1995 version of "litae" was not litae and that the 2002 version, with as much yellow in face as P. flavigula and more yellow than in any of the P. leucolaemus group, is really litae (named for type locality, Lita, in w. Ecuador). Piculus leucolaemus and P. flavigula are clearly separate species yet really do not differ very much, and the Middle American taxa, simplex and callopterus, are also now generally treated as species yet differ in seemingly small ways; so, this suggests that small differences are important in considerations of species status in these small Piculus. Nonetheless, the published rationale taken at face value (plumage differences, smaller size, and disjunct distribution) is insufficient for any taxonomic decision.
Winkler & Christie (2002) describe the voice of litae as "very like that of P. leucolaemus and P. flavigula."
Analysis: Multiple issues are involved here:
(1) what is the "true" litae?
(2) is it a species-level taxon?
(3) is it more closely related to leucolaemus, the traditional view and more sensible one based on distribution of parapatric taxa, or to Amazonian flavigula, which litae seems to resemble more in plumage?
(4) what is the form illustrated in Winkler et al. (1995), also represented in our collection?
If I could be sure of what litae really was, then I would advocate species rank for it if only to avoid including a taxon in leucolaemus that might be more closely related to P. flavigula. On the other hand, I hesitate to vote a taxon to species rank when I'm not personally clear on what that taxon actually is. This looks as if it's too complex a situation to resolve without lots of additional information, but perhaps some of you can clear all of this up. [Gary in particular made comments to me once upon a time about litae, but I can't find these.]
Recommendation: I don't have a recommendation on this one ... I could go either way depending on others' comments. This proposal was written just to stimulate discussion of the issue.
CORY, C. B. 1919. Catalogue of birds of the Americas. Field Mus. Nat. Hist. Publ., Zool. Ser., vol. 13, pt. 2, no. 2.
HILTY, S. L., AND W. L. BROWN. 1986. A guide to the birds of Colombia. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
MEYER DE SCHAUENSEE, R. 1970. A guide to the birds of South America. Livingston Publishing Co., Wynnewood, Pennsylvania.
PETERS, J. L. 1948. Check-list of birds of the world, vol. 6. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
RIDGELY , R. S., AND P. J. GREENFIELD. 2001. The birds of Ecuador. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
SHORT, L. L., JR. 1982. Woodpeckers of the world. Delaware Museum of Natural History, Greenville, Delaware.
SIBLEY, C. G., AND B. L. MONROE, JR. 1990. Distribution and taxonomy of birds of the World. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.
WINKLER, H., AND D. A. CHRISTIE. 2002. Family Picidae (woodpeckers. Pp. 296-558 in "Handbook of the Birds of the World, Vol. 7. Jacamars to woodpeckers." (J. del Hoyo et al., eds.). Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
WINKLER, H., D. A. CHRISTIE, AND D. NURNEY. 1995. Woodpeckers. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Van Remsen, April 2004
Comments from Stiles: "[YES] my limited experience with this bird does indeed reinforce the notion that it can resemble flavigula more than leucolaemus: my impression is that the males can "inflate the yellow of the cheek to cover much of the face, and the females are almost entirely yellow-faced (but with a contrasting dark crown not found in flavigula) (this assumes that what I've seen is really litae). The scratchy, catlike call is most distinctive but leucolaemus is reported to have a similar call (flavigula also??). Hence, I would incline towards a split, if only to avoid putting litae together with what might not be its closest relative. However, I could be easily convinced by cogent arguments to the contrary. For what it's worth, simplex (which I do know reasonably well) sounds totally different from any of these."
Comments from Robbins: "[YES] I have experience (observed and collected) with litae in northwestern Ecuador and although I'm not certain what its closest relative is (I suspect that it belongs in the simplex/callopterus/leucolaemus complex), I believe it should be treated as a species. It has very distinctive plumage characters (in essence if one combined characters of leucolaemus and flavigula you would have litae), and it is smaller. Certainly, if one (as does A.O.U.) treats simplex and callopterus as species, then to be consistent litae should be given species rank. With regard to the Winker et al. (1995; I haven't seen this) and the LSU specimen, I suspect that the "undescribed form" & "what litae really is" is nothing more than immatures of litae. The birds that I collected in extreme northwestern Ecuador were classic adult litae. The fact that Winker & Christie (2002) didn't mention the "possible undescribed form" makes me think that they later realized they were dealing with an immature bird in the Winker et al (1995) publication. Also, from what little Van mentioned about the LSU specimen it seems to fit the description of the immature --- see Winker & Christie (2002). So, I strongly support recognition of litae as a species. If this committee doesn't do that, then A.O.U. should treat simplex and callopterus as subspecies of leucolaemus. See my comments under Veniliornis chocoensis. "
Comments from Jaramillo: "NO. There is some confusion in the literature as to what litae actually is. This needs to be cleared up before going forward with any change in taxonomy. We need to anchor this taxon onto a type, and make sure we are all talking about the same thing. Can we get a photo of the type from the museum that houses it? Once this is cleared up we can move forward."
Comments from Nores: "SI, aunque sin mucho convencimiento ni conocimiento del tema. Me resultan aceptables los razonamientos de Robbins y Stiles, por eso voto por Si, pero también me parece válido lo que comenta Jaramillo."
Comments from Silva: "YES. Although I do not have experience with this species-group, I think Mark Robbins presented a good argument to rank litae as full biological species."
Comments from Zimmer: "I vote "YES". Although there seems to be some confusion over exactly what "litae" is based upon, I think the best course with situations like this is to isolate the taxon involved, rather than to risk another error by placing it within the wrong complex (in this case, choosing between P. flavigula and P. leucolaemus). Sinking it in within either of these groups would only obscure the situation, whereas isolating litae by recognizing it as a distinct species should draw more attention to it and hopefully lead to a more substantive analysis. The distribution of this bird certainly fits a biogeographic pattern that would suggest it is distinct."
Comments from Schulenberg: "YES. I would not over-interpret the differing descriptions of litae by Winkler and collaborators. Keep in mind that in doing so one is relying on someone (Winkler) whose research interests in woodpeckers are in ecology and behavior, not in systematics or in museum studies. I'd go so far as to expect it to be almost guaranteed that an author with such a background would screw up the morphological descriptions or reported distribution of at least a few range-restricted, poorly known, and poorly sampled taxa while on his way to end of a family-wide survey. I'd look elsewhere for a diagnosis of litae's characters, or for signs that this is a matter of some confusion."