Field of Science

The Psitteuteles Lorikeets

Varied lorikeet Psitteuteles versicolor, copyright Joshua Robertson.


Few groups of birds have been the object of human interest as much as parrots, with their striking coloration and intelligence inviting comment at least as far back as ancient Greek times. This interest has continued into recent times and scientific research into all aspects of parrot life has been extensive. Nevertheless, the classification of parrots has long been problematic. As a group, parrots combine a high degree of superficial disparity in features such as colour pattern with an underlying overall morphological conservatism (a not uncommon issue with birds). As such, though recognition of distinct species may be fairly straightforward, establishing the relationships between those species may be less so. Prior to the advent of molecular studies, few higher groups of parrots could be considered widely accepted. One such group was the lories, found in Australasia and the Pacific Islands (smaller members of this group are known as 'lorikeets' but, as with 'parrots' vs 'parakeets', the difference between the two is a question of size and shape rather than affinities). Members of this group evolved a long, narrow, brush-tipped tongue that allowed them to pursue a diet of nectar and pollen (Schweizer et al. 2015). About a dozen genera of lories are currently recognised: one such genus, Psitteuteles, is the subject of the current post.

Goldie's lorikeets Psitteuteles goldiei, copyright Ltshears.


Psitteuteles is commonly recognised to include three species of smaller lory: the varied lorikeet P. versicolor, the iris lorikeet P. iris and Goldie's lorikeet P. goldiei. In general, these are primarily green species with a red forehead and with varying amounts of blue across the back of the head and/or behind the eyes. The plumage is longitudinally streaked in the varied lorikeet and Goldie's lorikeet. Goldie's lorikeet has mauve cheeks whereas those of the varied lorikeet are partially yellow. The varied lorikeet is also mauve across the upper breast whereas the other two species are more evenly green. All three species are separated geographically: the varied lorikeet is widespread in northern Australia, Goldie's lorikeet is found in New Guinea and the iris lorikeet is found on the islands of Timor and Wetar in Indonesia. The varied lorikeet is particularly common in association with paperbarks and eucalypts around streams and waterholes, migrating as required to find trees in flower. Similar wandering habits are characteristic of Goldie's lorikeet which is mostly found in montane forest. The more sedentary iris lorikeet is mostly found in lowland monsoon forest. The varied and Goldie's lorikeets are not currently regarded as being of conservation concern but the iris lorikeet is more threatened by habitat loss and collection for the pet trade.

Iris lorikeet Psitteuteles iris, copyright Dick Daniels.


Not all authors have recognised Psitteuteles as a distinct group: some have included its species in the related genus Trichoglossus with the rainbow and scaly-breasted lorikeets. Recent phylogenetic studies suggest that suspicion of Psitteuteles' status may not be unwarranted. Molecular studies by Schweizer et al. (2015) and Provost et al. (2018) both fail to identify the three Psitteuteles species as forming a single clade. Instead, P. iris is placed close to Trichoglossus species whereas P. versicolor and P. goldiei are both placed outside a clade including Trichoglossus and related genera such as Eos, the red lories, and the musk lorikeet Glossopsitta concinna. A case could probably be made for restricting Psitteuteles to the varied lorikeet as type species while including the iris lorikeet in Trichoglossus. The fate of P. goldiei is more uncertain: though neither of the aforementioned studies identified P. versicolor and P. goldiei as sister species, it might be too early to exclude the possibility. Alternatively, should P. goldiei prove too phylogenetically isolated to include in any pre-existing genus, I am not aware of any available genus name for it. As seems to be one of my standard sign-offs on this site, further study is required.

REFERENCES

Provost, K. L., L. Joseph & B. T. Smith. 2018. Resolving a phylogenetic hypothesis for parrots: implications from systematics to conservation. Emu 118 (1): 7–21.

Schweizer, M., T. F. Wright, J. V. Peñalba, E. E. Schirtzinger & L. Joseph. 2015. Molecular phylogenetics suggests a New Guinean origin and frequent episodes of founder-event speciation in the nectarivorous lories and lorikeets (Aves: Psittaciformes). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 90: 34–48.

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