Elegant Pitta may comprise three species, study suggests


Analysing both morphological and bioacoustic data (including the results of playback experiments), the authors of a recent open-access study conclude that Elegant Pitta of eastern Indonesia comprises three species. The distinctiveness and distribution of the suggested species are discussed below, along with information on where birders are most likely to have seen them. The proposal is currently under consideration by the 'IOC' (worldbirdnames.org).


Temminck's Elegant Pitta Pitta elegans

Includes elegans, virginalis and maria. While all three taxa in this newly defined species are characterised by a three-note song (the first two notes of which are always given in quick succession), this is the most morphologically and ecologically variable of the three species with differences exhibited in the extent of black on the throat, the colour of the belly, and migration habits between subspecies. Form elegans is the only taxon known to migrate, breeding (Nov-Feb) on Timor and its satellites before migrating north into the Moluccas and Sulawesi (as far north as Talaud) between March and November. This route means that elegans migrates through the range of Wallace's Elegant Pitta in the Lesser Sundas, a fact the authors confirm with a specimen collected on Lomblen. The other subspecies, virginalis and maria, are likely to be resident on the Flores Sea Islands and Sumba respectively. The authors concede that further splits in this species may be necessary when combined with molecular data, as "the red belly patch of maria (Sumba) stands in stark contrast with the black-and-red belly spot of elegans (Timor)" and "Sumba and Timor are biogeographically disjunct and lack historic land bridges of any kind". It bears mention that maria is the only taxon in the Elegant Pitta complex to lack a white wing-patch, too. Birders are most likely to have seen Temminck's Elegant Pitta on Timor (Nov-Feb), Sumba (year-round), Buru (Mar-Nov) or Sulawesi (Mar-Nov).

Temminck's Elegant Pitta ssp maria on Sumba, Indonesia. This taxon, with its distinct red (as opposed to red-and-black) belly patch, may well warrant species status (James Eaton / Birdtour Asia).


Wallace's Elegant Pitta (Ornate Pitta) Pitta concinna

Monotypic. The most widespread of the newly defined species, Wallace's Elegant Pitta is resident from Lombok to Alor (excluding Sumba and Timor), including Flores where most birders encounter it. In contrast to Temminck's Elegant Pitta, concinna always delivers a unique two-note song separated by a shorter break than vigorsii (see next).

Adult 'Wallace's Elegant Pitta', Lombok, 21 August 2017 (John O'Malley).


Banda Elegant Pitta (Banda Sea Pitta) Pitta vigorsii

Monotypic. A narrowly distributed resident of the Banda Sea islands, usually seen by birders on Yamdena (Tanimbars) or Kai Kecil. This species differs from all other taxa by virtue of its extensively whitish throat (vs black), whiter supercilium and its variable two- or three-note song, which is delivered much slower than all other taxa, regardless of the number of notes.

Adult 'Banda Elegant Pitta', Tanahjampea Island, Sulawesi, 13 January 2019 (James Eaton / Birdtour Asia).



Distribution of the five Elegant Pitta taxa, from Liu et al (2020).



Yue, A, Ng, E, Eaton, J, and Rheindt, F. 2020. Species limits in the Elegant Pitta (Pitta elegans) complex from Wallacea based on bioacoustic and morphometric analysis. Avian Research 11(1).

Written by: Alex Berryman

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