Proposal (631) to South American Classification Committee


Modify English names in Knipolegus



With passage of Proposal 608 to re-sequence Knipolegus species based on the phylogeny of Hosner & Moyle (2012), we are left with a problem with the English names that needs to be cleaned up.  Here is our current classification (using indentations to reflect sister relationships):


Knipolegus orenocensis Riverside Tyrant

Knipolegus poecilurus Rufous-tailed Tyrant

Knipolegus poecilocercus Amazonian Black-Tyrant


Knipolegus franciscanus Caatinga Black-Tyrant

Knipolegus lophotes Crested Black-Tyrant

Knipolegus nigerrimus Velvety Black-Tyrant

Knipolegus signatus Jelski’s Black-Tyrant

Knipolegus cabanisi Plumbeous Black-Tyrant

Knipolegus cyanirostris Blue-billed Black-Tyrant

Knipolegus striaticeps Cinereous Tyrant

Knipolegus aterrimus White-winged Black-Tyrant

Knipolegus hudsoni Hudson's Black-Tyrant


Note that the English name “Black-Tyrant” no longer refers to a monophyletic group.  If all the Black-Tyrants were in one branch, everything would be ok, but they are not.  Therefore, under the rules for hyphenation, he options are (1) remove all hyphens from existing “Black-Tyrant”, or (2) add “Black-“ to “Tyrant” for three species: Riverside Tyrant, Rufous-tailed Tyrant, and Cinereous Tyrant.


Points in favor of just removing the hyphens are that no names would actually be changed, just the punctuation, and the consequence would be that our names would conform to those classifications that don’t use hyphens already.  A point against this approach is that hyphens or not, users of these names will assume that “Black Tyrants” are more closely related to each other than anything else, which Hosner & Moyle (2012) showed to be incorrect.  In general, the anti-hyphenation people fail to appreciate this point, i.e., that even if hyphens removed, the natural conclusion made by those unfamiliar with the tree is that the species that share the unhyphenated compound name form a group.


Points in favor of changing the three “Tyrants” to “Black-Tyrants” are that this would signal unambiguously that these species form a monophyletic group, and there would be an appealing 1-to-1 match with a genus and English name, which is tough to do in the Tyrannidae.  It would also make Knipolegus have a parallel naming scheme to Muscisaxicola (Ground-Tyrants), Agriornis (Shrike-Tyrants), Hemitriccus (Tody-Tyrants), Stigmatura (Wagtail-Tyrants), and Ochthoeca (Chat-Tyrants).  There are also a number of other just plain “Tyrants” in something like 8 other genera, ranging in body size from Culicivora to Gubernetes, and including Spectacled Tyrant (Hymenops), which is also a very “black tyrant”.  A minor point in favor of adding “Black-“ to Riverside Tyrant is that it is indeed as black and any species called “Black-Tyrant”, and to not have it noted as such is confusing – in fact, probably a lapsus given that this species has always been in Knipolegus, in contrast to hudsoni and poecilocercus.


Points against changing the three “Tyrants” to “Black-Tyrants” is that this is a greater cost to stability than option 1, and that “Cinereous Black-Tyrant” almost sounds contradictory.  However, we already have “Plumbeous Black-Tyrant”, and the hyphen makes it clear that “Black-Tyrant” refers to a group, not a bunch of tyrants that are black.  Note that the “IOC” has always claimed that grammar is on their side in removing hyphens, when in fact they have it totally backwards.  For example, not only does the hyphen in “Cinereous Black-Tyrant” make it clear that there is a “Black-Tyrant” group but it also removes the ambiguity, as hyphens are grammatically designed to do, in noting that Cinereous modifies “Black-Tyrant” and not “Black”, which is unclear in “Cinereous Black Tyrant” or Plumbeous Black Tyrant” (i.e. is it a “tyrant” that is “plumbeous black” or is it a “black tyrant” that is “plumbeous”).  Another point in favor of just deleting the hyphens is that calling all Knipolegus “Black-Tyrants” is misleading in that two of the three that would acquire the name are not black per se.  However, the same could be said of one of the species is already called “Plumbeous Black-Tyrant.”


I don’t feel strongly either way, but overall, I prefer option 2, namely all Knipolegus designated as “Black-Tyrant” because I like the potential for creating a rare 1-to-1 match of “last name” with genus.  Therefore, this is what I am proposing here, so a YES vote means calling them all “Black-Tyrant.”  A NO vote means resorting to our default rules on hyphens and simply removing them.  However, use of “Black Tyrant” as a descriptive name means that one or more of the NO voters should do a proposal to change “Riverside Tyrant” to “Riverside Black Tyrant” and “Plumbeous Black Tyrant” to Plumbeous Tyrant.


Van Remsen, May 2014





Comments from Stiles: “NO.  I am not impressed by the logic here, since applying it could produce a certain amount of chaos (see beyond).  As it stands, the name Black-Tyrant is a very useful descriptive name, in that all species having it have black males and variously grey or brown females, and all are members of Knipolegus.  Most users of English names are more interested in their usefulness for describing and recognizing the birds in the field than in intrageneric intricacies.  In this case, the simplest action would be to use Black-Tyrant for orenocensis, which retains the descriptive utility of this name.  Keeping Rufous-tailed and Cinereous for the only species of the genus not having black males calls attention to their oddball (“hen-feathered”, as Hellmayr puts it) coloration in the genus, which may also be useful for the field observer – and it is certainly better than calling them “black” when they (males) aren´t.  Applying Van´s logic strictly in another particularly problematic case, since the American Redstart is embedded within “Dendroica” and Setophaga has priority; we should either call all the ex-Dendroicas “Redstarts” rather than “Warblers” (ack) or find a new English name for S. ruticilla (“Redstart Warbler”? –aaugh!) …. although, come to think of it, doing something like the latter would free us from having to use “redstart” for the species of Myioborus and we could go to the currently more popular and much more appropriate name “whitestart” with a clear conscience.  This would mean changing the name of picta to Painted Whitestart, which might offend the NACC (?) but it would certainly better reflect phylogeny, as well as its tail colors – and North America users could like the name in that it calls attention to the fact that this species is indeed the northernmost representative of a widespread Neotropical genus.”


Comments from Zimmer: “ “YES” to retaining “Black-Tyrant” as the hyphenated group name for all Knipolegus.  This would require changing the three species in the genus that currently go by “Tyrant” (orenocensis, poecilurus and striaticeps) to “Black-Tyrant”, which, in the case of orenocensis, is fitting.  Although males of poecilurus and striaticeps are gray rather than black, I don’t see a problem with this.  As Van points out, we already have a “Plumbeous Black-Tyrant” (name contradictory; plumage not black), so why not a “Cinereous Black-Tyrant” (name contradictory; plumage not black) and a Rufous-tailed Black-Tyrant (plumage not black)?  If I’m interpreting the hyphenation rules correctly, we can’t go with Gary’s suggestion to make orenocensis a “Black-Tyrant” while leaving poecilurus and striaticeps as they are, because we would be left with the same situation that we have now, which is having a hyphenated group-name applied to birds in two different branches, each of which would contain species not sharing the group name.  I think the benefits of having a hyphenated group-name that corresponds perfectly to the genus name outweighs the blow to stability caused by making changes to the names of three species, even if it means that two of those three species will have a group-name that is misleading concerning their plumage.  I understand Gary’s argument regarding redstarts and warblers, but I think that the changes dictated in the current case pertain only to hyphenated group-names and whether or not to use the hyphen.  Since neither “redstart” nor “warbler” is hyphenated, it seems to me that it is acceptable to have birds in the same genus called one thing or the other.  Look at all of the birds from different genera and different families that have “Tanager” as the group name.  On the other hand, it would be a problem if we had some Habia species called “Ant-Tanager” and others just called “Tanager”  – correct?  And, as for the misleading aspect of having Black-Tyrants that aren’t black, if we can have a North American bird called “Olive Warbler” that is not olive in any plumage, nor is it a warbler, then I figure anything goes!”


Comments from Robbins: “YES, but I can go either way with this proposal. I certainly appreciate Gary’s comments and would fully support that course if the rest of the committee concurs with his rationale.”


Comments from Stotz: “NO.  I just can’t bring myself to call Rufous-tailed Tyrant a Black-Tyrant.  I favor dropping the hyphens, and maybe the black from at least Plumbeous Black-Tyrant.  It would be hard to drop Black from Amazonian Black Tyrant, and restrict the Black-Tyrants to the bigger subclade (and would still have Cinereous Black-Tyrant).”


Comments from Jaramillo: “NO. Take out the hyphens. The main user group of the English names is concerned about knowing that the ones called black tyrant are actually black (in some plumages) rather than the relationship of the group as Gary stated. I think that most folks will really find Cinereous Black-Tyrant such an awful name, that they will wonder what we thinking of. So definitely a NO.”


Response from Remsen: “Alvaro, we already have Plumbeous Black-Tyrant, so I do not see what the difference is.  At least with the hyphens, it should be clear to anyone familiar with hyphenated group names that the “Black” refers to the group, not the species.  Without the hyphen, which has to happen if the proposal fails, the unhyphenated “Plumbeous Black Tyrant” is nonsensical.”