Proposal (657) to South American Classification Committee


Change the English names of the greenlets



Effect on SACC:

         This proposal would change the English names of the greenlets (Hylophilus sensu lato; see table below) to reflect the polyphyly of the greenlets as revealed by the molecular phylogeny of Slager et al. (2014).



         Ridgely and Tudor (1989) were perhaps first to observe that the greenlets (genus Hylophilus) might warrant splitting into multiple genera, and molecular phylogenetic data has borne this out.  SACC Vireonidae footnote 11 currently reads as follows:

11. Genetic data indicate that Hylophilus is not monophyletic (Johnson et al. 1988) and that at least three separate genera are required (Slager et al. 2014).  SACC proposal needed <wait follow-up taxonomic paper by Slager et al. >  The name Pachysylvia was formerly (e.g., Ridgway 1904) used for Hylophilus.

New Information:

         The molecular phylogeny of Slager et al. (2014) shows Hylophilus to be polyphyletic, falling into 4 separate clades.  Slager and Klicka (2014) proposed revising the greenlets into 4 separate genera to reflect these relationships.  These generic revisions are covered in separate SACC proposals; the present proposal concerns only the English names.



         Despite their small sizes and their sometimes nondescript plumages, the "scrub" greenlets (Hylophilus sensu stricto), "canopy" greenlets (Pachysylvia), and Tawny-crowned Greenlet (Tunchiornis) are distinct and deeply divergent radiations that span the phylogenetic diversity of Vireonidae (Slager and Klicka 2014).  The shared English name "greenlet" falsely implies monophyly of these highly divergent groups.

         Replacing "Greenlet" in the English names with the genus names (Hylophilus, Pachysylvia, and Tunchiornis) would be a way to label these genera as different from each other without resorting to hyphenated English names.  There is historical precedent for genus-based English names for the group:  Ridgway (1904) used Pachysylvia for all his English names and Hellmayr (1935) used Hylophilus for all his English names.





Grey-eyed Greenlet

Grey-eyed Hylophilus

Rufous-crowned Greenlet

Rufous-crowned Hylophilus

Ashy-headed Greenlet

Ashy-headed Hylophilus

Olivaceous Greenlet

Olivaceous Hylophilus

Scrub Greenlet

Scrub Hylophilus

Gray-chested Greenlet

Gray-chested Hylophilus

Lemon-chested Greenlet

Lemon-chested Hylophilus

Brown-headed Greenlet

Brown-headed Hylophilus

Tawny-crowned Greenlet

Tawny-crowned Tunchiornis

Lesser Greenlet

Lesser Pachysylvia

Dusky-capped Greenlet

Dusky-capped Pachysylvia

Buff-cheeked Greenlet

Buff-cheeked Pachysylvia

Golden-fronted Greenlet

Golden-fronted Pachysylvia

Rufous-naped Greenlet

Rufous-naped Pachysylvia




         I recommend a YES vote, because the word "greenlet" was never very descriptive to begin with and because genus-based English names would draw attention to the long independent evolutionary histories of these diverse yet under-appreciated birds.  A NO vote would leave the English names unchanged.


Literature Cited:


Slager, D.L., Battey, C.J., Bryson, R.W. Jr., Voelker, G., & Klicka J. (2014) A multilocus phylogeny of a major New World avian radiation: The Vireonidae.  Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 80, 95-104.

Slager, D.L. & J. Klicka. (2014).  Polyphyly of Hylophilus and a new genus for the Tawny-crowned Greenlet (Aves: Passeriformes: Vireonidae).  Zootaxa 3884:194-196.

Dave Slager, November 2014




Comments from Stiles: “YES, given that these two groups are not close relatives , and both English names proposed have some historical traction.  This would restrict the name “greenlet” to ochraceiceps, which seems reasonable enough (I’m not sure I could admire “Tawny-crowned Tunchiornis”).”


Comments from Stotz: “NO . I think this is an example of trying to use English names inappropriately to represent phylogeny.  English names do not need to reflect the latest thinking in  phylogeny. While I agree that sclateri needs to be a “Vireo” because it is embedded in Vireo, I don’t think we need to introduce new names for greenlets.  I am personally alarmed by the trend toward doing away with English names and using generic names as “English” names.  I recognize that Vireo is one of those names, but it has a very long history of use as an English name.  I don’t think the minor gain in phylogenetic correctness overwhelms the negatives of name changes, and especially name changes to complicated generic names.  If we are going to use generic names as English names routinely, why not just do away with English names entirely?”


Comments from Zimmer: “NO.  I don’t really see the need to change the names at all – after all, we have all kinds of unrelated birds in different genera called “Warblers” even though that name isn’t particularly descriptive or informative.  And then there are flycatchers, tanagers, blackbirds, etc., etc.  If we do feel the need to change the English names to delineate these monophyletic groups within the Vireonidae, then I would favor hyphenated group names such as “something Scrub-Greenlet” or “something Canopy-Greenlet”.  But this would require all kinds of tinkering with the names, not to mention making the names long and awkward (e.g. “Golden-fronted Canopy-Greenlet”), and, although they would accurately reflect our current understanding of the phylogeny, they would be somewhat misleading with respect to some of the “Scrub-Greenlets”, some of which are every bit as much canopy-dwelling or forest-dwelling as the Pachysylvia, albeit in lower-stature or different types of forest (e.g. mangroves, várzea, campinarana, etc.).  I think that in the case of really large, heterogeneous families containing genera with relatively minor phenotypic variation between species (Tyrannidae comes readily to mind), the use of the genus name in place of an English group name can be both utilitarian and informative (and, after all, we accept “Vireo” and “Trogon” as English names).  Thus, I don’t have the same visceral dislike of substituting Latin generic names for English group names that some on the committee might have, but I don’t think we should be doing that for every monophyletic group in every family.”


Comments from Robbins: “NO.  I see this as adding confusion instead of clarification to the group of people who will be using English names.  Although I’m generally supportive about using generic names for English names, e.g., Spindalis, but in this case I don’t believe it is an improvement.  If there was going to be any change, I’d be for calling all of the vireos.”


Comments from Remsen: “YES. Although the NO comments above make strong points, this really isn’t the same as a novel use of a genus as an English name.  As the proposal notes, there is historical precedent for use of both Pachysylvia and Hylophilus as English names – in fact, as far as I can tell, they were in use long before Greenlet.  So, we have a rare opportunity to have a nearly clean 1-1 match between English name and genus.  “Greenlet” still works, however, as an ecomorph – generally smaller and thinner billed than “Vireo” so retains some usefulness.”