Re: Harry "Snowy" Albatross

Subject: Re: Harry "Snowy" Albatross
From: David James <>
Date: Thu, 10 Dec 1998 00:33:44 +1000
At 13:27 9/12/98 +0100, P.J. Milburn wrote:
>While on this thread I note that Robertson and Nunn bring attention to the
>fact that Diomedea exulans (Wandering Albatross) is attributable to the
>species which breeds on Gough and (formerly) Tritan de Cuhna Is and,
>consequently, have resurrected Diomedea chionoptera (Snowy Albatross), the
>large, white, high-lattitude-breeding species.  This means that Wandering
>Albatross should be called Snowy Albatross (some people never changed
>anyway) and that currently there is only one accepted record of Wandering
>Albatross in Australian waters!!

Hi Peter and birding aus folk,

I wish albatross taxonomy was so clear. Type specimens of albatrosses
present a few problems. when Linneus described Wandering Albatross D.
exulans in 1758 he gave no type (a specific specimen that forms a bench
mark by for the name) and no type-locality. Enter Gregor Mathews who loved
to describe new subspecies by providing new names for birds from a suite of
different localities (opinions may differ as to whether he saw so much
geographical variation to justify so many names or whether he was just
eager and hopeful). Anyway, he declared a type specimen for D. exulans by
what's called a "subsequent designation" and fixed the type locality of D.
exulans to the Cape of Good Hope, which is allowed under the rules of
nomenclature, so that he could proceed with his taxonomic revision.
Unfortunately, wandering albs dont breed at CoGH so the only way to know
which breeding population (and therefore which subspecies or species) the
name D. exulans exulans applies to is to examine the type specimen, compare
it with a big range of specimens and identify where it did (= might have)
come from. Of course, this is hindered by needing to know the age and the
sex of the bird and what's going on in all the populations, and not least
the current locality of the type (probably in the American Museum of
Natural History along with most of Mathew's types but maybe lost?). 

Curiously enough, and some years latter Mathews described D. e. dabbenena
from none other than, Gough and Tristan da Cuna. This suggests that Mathews
considered that D. e. exulans breeds somewhere else. 

Incidently, Mathews also described rohui from Sydney, rothschildi from
eastern Australia and westralis from albany. This added to chionptera
described earlier by salvin from the Kermedec Islands (a very old white
male) and spadicea described earlier still by Gmelin from the S. Atlantic
(A young bird). What a mess. None of these last 5 are from breeding islands
and we all know that wanderers (sensu latto) fly around the southern
hemisphere when not on the nest. The specimens were probably all different
ages and sexes. And they are all deposited in cupboards in different parts
of the globe, those that still exist.

How could you sort this out? I'll spare us all the details, but be assured
it would be very laborious and tricky. Now maybe the wandering alby complex
would be better treated as two or four or ten species, I'm not qualified to
say. but until Robertson and Nunn present their work for scientific
scrutiny via peer revision in appropriate forae, until they detail their
methods and results in a transparent and objective fashion they won't get
my vote. And I very much doubt that their taxonomy will make it to the
Australian Checklist. 

Of course, you can call a bird anything you like, as long as you're not
worried about confusion. Long live the cape sheep!

David James
PO BOX 5225
Townsville Mail Centre 4810

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