False Sunbirds and Asities (Philepittidae)
False sunbirds and asities
Suborder Tyranni (Suboscines)
Medium or small birds; two species frugivorous with short bills, two species nectarivorous with long, curved bills; males have brightly colored wattles during the breeding season; plumage usually dark blue, black, or yellow
3.5–6.5 in (9–16.5 cm); 0.2–1.3 oz (6–37 g)
Number of genera, species
2 genera; 4 species
Canopy and understory of tropical rainforest
Endangered: 1 species; Near Threatened: 1 species
Endemic to Madagascar
Evolution and systematics
The ecological and morphological diversity of these Madagascan endemics has caused considerable confusion over their proper classification. As currently recognized, the philepittids are a family of suboscine birds including two genera, the asities (Philepitta) and the sunbird-asities (Neodrepanis). With their frugivorous habits and short bills, the asities were originally associated with several of the oscine passerines, including the starlings, sunbirds, and birds of paradise. However, by the late 1800s, it was recognized that these birds were in fact suboscine passerines. Sunbird-asities, with their long, decurved bills and nectarivorous foraging habits, were also originally assumed to be oscine passerines and classified as sunbirds (Nectariniidae). However, it was not until 1951 that investigations of syrinx morphology demonstrated that these unique birds were also suboscines.
The placement of Philepittidae within the Old World suboscines remains problematic. The most recent morphological analysis, published in 1993 by Richard Prum, suggests that philepittids are not a true family, but should be considered a subfamily (Philepittinae) of the Eurylaimidae. Under this hypothesis, the Philepittidae represent a radiation from a broad-bill ancestor that probably originated from Africa. In contrast, a phylogeny based on nuclear DNA gene sequences published by Martin Irestedt and coworkers in 2001 found strong support for placing the Philepittidae outside the Eurylaimidae, thus justifying its classification as a true family.
Of the philepittids, the asities are the larger of the two genera, measuring 4.7–6.3 in (12–16 cm) in length. These birds are primarily frugivorous and have short bills, relatively large heads, round bodies, and short tails. In contrast, sun-bird-asities, like many nectarivorous passerines, are relatively small, measuring only 3.5–4.3 in (9–11 cm) in length. They have long, curved bills, and specialized tongues for extracting nectar from forest flowers. Sunbird-asities have plump bodies and short tails.
The plumage patterns of the philepittids are generally characterized by black, dark blue, olive-green and bright yellow. All species are sexually dimorphic; females are generally olive-green and cryptic, while males have much brighter and contrasting plumage. Perhaps the most unique feature of these birds is the bright blue, yellow, and green caruncles (wattles) of bare facial skin developed by males during the breeding season. Richard Prum has performed an extensive investigation of these structures from velvet asities (Philepitta castena) and common sunbird-asities (Neodrepanis coruscans) and has demonstrated that the bright colors are produced by light reflecting from unique alignments of collagen fibers. This form of structural coloration is not known to occur in any other animals.
Asities and sunbird-asities are endemic to the forests of Madagascar.
These birds are found in the understory, lower levels of canopy, and occasionally in the canopy of primary rainforest, dry deciduous forest, degraded or logged forest, and in secondary forest. The genus Philepitta occurs in many forest habitats of Madagascar, with one species (P. schlegeli) found on the drier eastern side of the island and the other (P. castanea) found in the moister rainforest on the west side of the island. In contrast, Neodrepanis is found only in the rainforests on the west side of the island. These birds occur from sea level up to 5,900 ft (1,800 m), but some species have strong affinities for relatively narrow altitudinal zones.
Philepittids may be found either alone, in pairs, or in small groups. Several individuals may occur together at food resources, such as flowering or fruiting trees. Such aggregations may lead to intraspecific displays and defense of resources, especially among Neodrepanis. Philepittids will also join mixed-species foraging flocks when feeding on fruit or insects.
Males call frequently, especially during the breeding season, and a wide variety of male displays has been recorded. Much of this behavior appears to be the basis of a lek mating system. There is no evidence that philepittids migrate, but the possibility that some species are altitudinal migrants cannot be ruled out.
Feeding ecology and diet
The asities in the genus Philepitta are primarily frugivorous, but also feed on nectar and insects. Fruits are consumed while the birds are perched. Although Philepitta does not have the specialized bill morphology of Neodrepanis, nectar is probably an important component of the diet. Initial investigations of tongue morphology have suggested that a brush-like tip and the ability to roll it into a tube-like form may increase the efficiency with which nectar can be consumed. Pollen may also be an important food item.
Sunbird-asities (Neodrepanis) are specialized for consuming nectar. These birds have long, decurved bills for entering flower corollas and long, tube-like tongues for the efficient extraction of nectar. They feed on the nectar of a variety of flowers including Balanophoraceae, Balsaminaceae, Loranthaceae, Rubiaceae, Clusiaceae, Melastomataceae, and Zingiberaceae. Insects and spiders are also an important component of their diet. These species have been observed searching in moss and along branches for invertebrates and fly-catching small insects.
Although there are few breeding records for any of the philepittids, it appears that most nesting attempts are made between July and January. Local breeding seasonality may be timed so that young fledge at the onset of the rainy season.
Most observations suggest that the philepittids are polygynous. The most convincing evidence comes from detailed observations of the velvet asity. The males of this species defend territories no more than 66–100 ft (20–30 m) in diameter, within which males perform three displays, including wing-flapping, an open-mouth display, and an open-mouth display coupled with hanging inverted from their perch. Other observations, such as groups of male Schlegel's asities (Philepitta schlegeli) calling simultaneously and an upside-down open-mouth display by the yellow false-sunbird, suggest that a polygynous mating system may be widespread in this family.
All philepittids build ragged, pendulant nests hung from the low branches of trees. Nests are built of moss, palm fibers, dead leaves, and fine twigs. Based on observations of velvet asities and common sunbird-asities, nest construction is by the female alone and proceeds in an unique fashion: a complete orb is first constructed, then, once finished, the female pokes a hole through the side to form the entrance.
Clutch size varies from two to three eggs. There is no information on incubation or nestling periods. For most species that have been observed, the female incubates and feeds the young.
The philepittids are especially vulnerable to the widespread destruction of forested habitats occurring on Madagascar. The most seriously threatened species is the yellow-bellied sunbird-asity (Neodrepanis hypoxantha), which is considered Endangered. It was also added to Appendix I of CITES in 1995. This species was recently reclassified from Critically Endangered due to studies that indicate its population may be larger than previously thought. However, it remains threatened because of its very small, fragmented range and continuing decline of its habitat.
Significance to humans
For many years, these small, inconspicuous birds have lived in a remote area inhabited by few people, and have been essentially overlooked. More recently, the growing popularity of bird-watching and ecotourism has lead to an increased interest in these species.
List of SpeciesVelvet asity
Turdus castanea P.L.S. Muller, 1776, Madagascar.
other common names
French: Philépitte veloutée; German: Seidenjala; Spanish: Asitis de Terciopelo.
5.5–6.5 in (14–16.5 cm); 1.1–1.3 oz (31.5–37 g). Breeding male: almost completely black with greenish caruncle over each eye and blue stripe between caruncle and eye. Female: olive-green with pale yellow blotches on underparts.
Understory, lower levels of canopy, and occasionally in the canopy of primary rainforest, degraded or logged forest, and in secondary forest; from sea level up to 5,900 ft (1,800 m).
Often forages in small groups or pairs, but sometimes alone. May also join mixed-species flocks.
feeding ecology and diet
Primarily frugivorous (e.g., Melastomataceae, Pittosporaceae, and Rubiaceae), but also feeds on nectar and insects.
Breeds July–January; northern birds breed earlier than southern birds. Pear-shaped nest, woven of moss and palm fibers and lined with leaves, is hung from a low branch in a shaded location. Usually lays three white eggs. Only the female has been observed to incubate, but both males and females have been recorded feeding young.
Not threatened, and common in suitable habitat. However, loss of rainforest habitat in Madagascar may threaten its long-term persistence.
significance to humans
Neodrepanis coruscans Sharpe, 1875, Madagascar.
other common names
French: Philépitte faux-souimanga caronculé German: Langschnabel-Nektarjala; Spanish: Asitis Caranculado.
3.7–4.1 in (9.5–10.5 cm); 0.2–0.3 oz (6.2–6.6 g). Small bird with long, decurved bill. Male: blue-brown upperparts, dull yellow underparts with brown streaks on breast, blue caruncle around eye. Female: brown upperparts, light brown head, dull underparts with yellow on flanks and under tail.
Understory, lower levels of canopy, and occasionally in the canopy of rainforest and in secondary forest from sea level up to 4,000 ft (1,200 m).
Forage alone in or pairs, actively moving through the understory to visit flowers; sometimes feed in association with other nectarivorous birds, such as white-eyes and sunbirds.
feeding ecology and diet
Primarily nectarivorous; observed feeding at a variety of flowers including Balanophoraceae, Balsaminaceae, Loranthaceae, Rubiaceae, Clusiaceae, Melastomataceae, and Zingiberaceae. Also eats insects and spiders, often searching in moss or on branches for these invertebrates.
Poorly known. Breeds August–December. Pendulant nest of moss, leaves, and twigs is hung from a low branch. One nest contained two pale green eggs. Only female has been observed incubating and feeding young.
Not threatened, and common in suitable habitat. However, loss of rainforest habitat may threaten its long-term survival.
significance to humans
Lambert, F., and M. Woodcock. Pittas, Broadbills and Asities. Sussex, UK: Pica Press, 1996.
Langrand, O. The Birds of Madagascar. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
Irestedt, M., U. Johansson, T. Parsons, and P. Ericson. "Phylogeny of Major Lineages of Suboscines (Passeriformes) Analysed by Nuclear DNA Sequence data." Journal of Avian Biology 32 (2001): 15–25.
Prum, R. "Phylogeny, Biogeography, and Evolution of the Broadbills (Eurylaimidae) and Asities (Philepittidae) Based on Morphology." Auk 110 (1993): 304–324.
Prum, R., R. Torres, C. Kovach, S. Williamson, and S. Goodman. "Coherent Light Scattering by Nanostructured Collagen Arrays in the Caruncles of the Malagasy Asities (Eurylaimidae: Aves)." Journal of Experimental Biology 202(1999): 3507–3522.
Prum, R., and V. Razafindratsita. "Lek Behavior and Natural History of the Velvet Asity (Philepitta castanea: Eurylaimidae)." Wilson Bulletin 109 (1997): 371–392.
Nathaniel E. Seavy, MS