Splits hit Philippine fantails

Philippine Pied Fantail will be an 'armchair tick' for many previous visitors to the archipelago. Photo: pinay06 (commons.wikimedia.org).
Philippine Pied Fantail will be an 'armchair tick' for many previous visitors to the archipelago. Photo: pinay06 (commons.wikimedia.org).

Fantails are small flycatcher or chat-like birds inhabiting the forested regions of southern Asia and Australasia, region as far east as Samoa and as far west as Pakistan. They belong to one genus Rhipidura and are ensconced in their own family Ripiduridae, a corvid family believed to be closely allied to the drongos Dicruridae and the endemic Australian mudnesters Corcoracidae.

In common with several other families and genera on the Philippine archipelago, the genus has produced endemic species there, and also some island-specific subspecies. The islands hold four currently accepted species: Pied Fantail R javanica, widespread in South-east Asia, and three endemic species, Blue-headed Fantail R cyaniceps, Blue Fantail, R superciliaris and Black-and-cinnamon Fantail R nigrocinnamomea.

A Mexican and American study using both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA has now shown that the Philippines holds seven unique species. Firstly, the endemic subspecies of Pied Fantail R (javanica) nigritorquis has been shown to be a 'good species', making all fantail forms present endemic to the islands. Blue-headed is retained, holding two subspecies, nominate and pinicola, whose distributions don't match their supposed ranges, and which need further work; the other two former subspecies of cyaniceps - sauli and albiventris - are declared distinct species, Tablas and Visayan Fantail respectively.    

R superciliaris is also split into nominate Mindanao Blue Fantail and R samarensis, Visayan Blue Fantail, the former also containing the subspecies apo. Black-and-cinnamon Fantail is maintained as a monotypic endemic species.

The newly and previously declared taxa only partially matched what is known about the creation of the major Philippine islands by Late Pleistocene sea level changes, indicating that a complex sequence of isolation and colonisation is involved in the genus's evolution on the islands, spread over time in at least two dispersal events.

The new splits underline the importance of the Philippines as a hot-spot of island biodiversity which is only just being uncovered by biologists as more forms are assessed at a genetic level.   

Sanchez-Gonzalez, L A and Moyle, R G. 2011. Molecular systematics and species limits in the Philippine fantails (Aves: Rhipidura). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 61: 290-299.