[CT Birds] More AOU taxonomy talk

Mark Szantyr birdinggeek at gmail.com
Wed Jul 25 15:25:10 EDT 2012


Wow.  I am glad its butterfly season. I will think about this in October... Or not

Mark 

On Jul 25, 2012, at 3:08 PM, paul cianfaglione <pgcianfaglione at gmail.com> wrote:

> This information was gleaned (letter and response) from the latest edition
> of Birding Magazine. Some of you may find this interesting.
> 
> Paul Cianfaglione
> Canton
> 
> 
> 
> 
> The AOU Check-list: Humbleness? Hubris? Hypocrisy?
> 
> 
> 
> For now, most birders and the ABA are content to be sheep and follow the
> proclamations of the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) about what is, and
> what isn’t, a species – and thus can be counted on a list. It’s just easier
> that way, even if some of the AOU’s decisions are ill-founded or
> inconsistent. But if the AOU were your dentist or hairdresser, would you go
> back to them?
> 
> 
> 
> One of the more puzzling things in recent AOU proclamations and checklists
> has been the introduction of the category “incertae sedis” in their
> checklists meaning “of uncertain placement.” Yes, the AOU is actually
> saying, and often despite genetic analysis, that they don’t know where a
> few groups of birds fit in the overall classification. At first this
> gesture might seem like humility, but the obverse is that the AOU is
> implying they really do know where all the other birds do belong.
> 
> 
> 
> Of course, a quick perusal of the regularly published AOU taxonomic updates
> over the last 20 years shows that major changes happen all the time. Those
> changes extend well beyond the occasional genus of “uncertain placement.”
> Often, they involve major changes to avian relationships that were “known”
> to be “true.” Why not be honest and just write “incertae sedis” at the
> start of every checklist and be done with it?
> 
> 
> 
> Steve Howell
> 
> California
> 
> 
> 
> Response:
> 
> 
> 
> Other than finding another outlet for hurling his predictably volcanic
> invective at the AOU, Howell’s major point is evidently that no one,
> including the AOU, knows “where birds belong.” That point was arguably
> valid a couple of decades ago, before DNA-sequencing technology and
> analyses, but all classifications explicitly contained varying degrees of
> uncertainty and were best treated as hypotheses. However, unless Howell has
> an alternative explanation-of which the world is yet unaware-for the
> mechanisms of inheritance and the interpretation of DNA sequence data, then
> “we” actually do “know” where most groups of birds belong with an
> unprecedented degree of certainty, and Howell’s statements contain an
> exceptionally unfavorably arrogance-to-ignorance ratio. The monophyly
> (namely, that all members share a common ancestor) of the overwhelming
> majority of orders and families of North American birds has been
> corroborated by multiple independent genetic data-sets. Those taxonomic
> changes to which Howell refers are in response to those data.
> 
> 
> 
> There remain, however, a few groups of uncertain familial placement-also
> known as incertae sedis. This placement is not “despite” genetic analysis,
> as Howell states, but rather because of them, and we are likely only a few
> analyses away from certain placement of the few taxa currently listed as
> incertae sedis- for example, the saltators and the Bananaquit. We are also
> in the process of transferring blocks of genera among the Emberizidae,
> Thraupidae, and Parulidae. A few others, such as the not-a-real-warbler
> Yellow-breasted Chat, will likely spend time in incertae sedis until new
> data reveal where their branches join in the avian tree. Incertae sedis
> acts as a holding pen for those taxa for which new data indicate that they
> do not belong where previously placed but are still ambiguous as to where
> they really do belong.
> 
> 
> 
> It’s only fair to extend Howell’s smug choose-your-dentist-wisely analogy
> to some of his own taxonomy. For example, Howell’s own (A Guide to the
> Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America) data-free treatment of
> Worm-eating and Swainson’s warblers as members of the same genus-despite
> their radical differences in song structure, nest architecture and
> placement, and foraging behavior-would now require of all warblers except
> the Ovenbird into that genus to make it monophyletic. Would you go back to
> that dentist?
> 
> 
> 
> Van Remsen
> 
> Member, AOU Committee on Classification and Nomenclature of North and
> Middle American Birds
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