a web page by Don Roberson
ELACHURA Elachuridae
  • 1 species in southern Asia
  • DR personal total: 1 species (100%), 0 photo'd

"The past 10 years have witnessed a surge in taxonomic changes in Asian birds, partly as a result of molecular analyses," wrote Per Alström and coauthors in Biology Letters in 2014. One of the most surprising was that White-bellied "Yuhina," a common bird throughout much of tropical Asia, and well-ensconsed within the Babblers, was actually related to Vireos in the New World (Cibois 2003, Alström et al. 2006); see the Erpornis page. Now something even more shocking has been discovered.

Alström et al. (2014) were interested in the evolution of Asian babblers. The international team amassed a huge DNA sequence dataset for the Passerida, which represents about 60% of global bird species. They found the Passerida was composed of ten clades [evolutionary lineages], nine of which were expected. But on a single "bare branch" at the base of the evolutionary tree was something totally unexpected — a tiny "wren-babbler," traditionally known as Spotted Wren-Babbler "Spelaeornis formosus," which had recently been moved to its own genus (Elachura) because of distinctive morphology and vocalizations (Collar & Robson 2007).

Here (left, in an amazing shot by Roon Bhuyan) is Elachura, now described by Alström et al. (2014) as the only extant member of the ancient family Elachuridae.

Elachura is, to quote a blog by "grrlscientist" in The Guardian in April 2014, a "little brown bird that is so shy that it's heard more often than seen as it goes about its business in dense moist forests throughout the mountains of tropical and subtropical Asia." It is usually located by its distinctive vocalization, and it does hide in the undergrowth, where it is a local resident within its range. This map (right) is from Alström et al. (2014) and shows the range of Elachura in red: eastern Himalayas extending down mountain chains into Burma and Vietnam, and an isolated range in the mountains of southeast China. The three black (and named) dots on the map where the locations of specimens analyzed by Alström et al. (2014).

The "grrlscientist" blog interviewed Per Alström about the discovery of this unique little bird. He said that he doubted "that we'll find another species that belongs in the same family. So the Elachura is likely to be a true loner." It managed to avoid detection as a unique family for so many years because of the "wonders of convergent evolution," which permit unrelated species to evolve to resemble each other because they occupy similar niches.

As to seeing one in the field, Alström himself had seen it in both India and China, but added "It's extremely difficult to watch, as it inhabits dense undergrowth, often in little gullies on very steep mountain slopes." As to finding one: "All of the ones that I've seen I've first noticed by their distinctive song."

My personal experience is similar. On a birding tour to Bhutan in Mar-Apr 2019, we heard two different Elachura giving distinctive songs in Jigme Dorji NP, in thick rainforest at 1250m. Despite knowing exactly where in the thick undergrowth the song was emanating, I did not even get a glimpse of either bird despite extensive efforts with tapes. Then it began to rain heavily and we had to give up. Efforts the next day were also washed out by rain.

It was not until 1 Apr 2019, at Thenleygang (1973m), that our guides located another vocalizing Elachura. The location was in a ravine with a small dry waterfall at the top. After much effort, most of us did see the bird run across the top of the rock-ledge that would be a small waterfall in the wet season. Then the Elachura moved right and ran across this spot (left), dashing from behind the fern on the left and into thickets to the right. I was aiming my camera at this spot and took this shot — just missing getting the bird in the photo by a second! It was the last Elachura heard on the trip. I surely will never have a chance for a photo again.

As discussed above, the Elachura was once known as a "wren-babbler." There were once a half-dozen or so other genera that were called wren-babblers but it is truly remarkable that when genetic analysis was undertaken, two of them were not babblers at all. Elachura proved to be this ancient lineages, and the genus Pnoepyga, sometimes called the "pygmy wren-babblers," were also not babblers and were elevated to the Pnoepygidae, the Cupwings. Will there be more surprises? It seems unlikely. The DNA evidence published so far has found that the remaining wren-babblers with the family Timaliidae, but that there they divide yet again: genus Spelaeornis is within the subfamily Timaliinae while the remaining genera termed wren-babblers (e.g., Rimator, Ptiolcichla, Kenopia, Napothera) are now assigned to this subfamily Pellorneinae. Several major world checklists (e.g., Clements, IOC) currently elevate what I recognize as three subfamilies of Babblers to three Family-level groupings. In that scenario, the "old" wren-babblers have proven to belong to four (!!) different families.


Photos: The Elachura Elachura formosa was photographed in Arunachal Pradesh, India, by Roon Bhuyan. The spot at which I saw an Elachura, but just missed the photo, was at Thenleygang, Bhutan, on 1 Apr 2019.

      Photo © Roon Bhuyan, as credited, and used with permission; all rights reserved. I am grateful to Murray Lord, Tony Palliser, and Abidur Rahman for help in obtaining permission to use this very nice photograph.

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" on this new family, but a good introduction to the genus, with photos, is in Collar & Robson (2007).

Literature cited:

Alström P., P.G.P. Ericson, U. Olsson, and P. Sundberg. 2006. Phylogeny and classification of the avian superfamily Sylvioidea. Molecular Phylogenetics & Evolution 38: 381-397.

Alström. P., D.M. Hooper, Y. Liu, U. Olsson, D. Mohan, M. Gelang, L.M. Hung, J. Zhao, F. Lei, and T.D. Price. 2014. Discovery of a relict lineage and monotypic family of passerine birds. Biol. Letters 10 (3) doi:10.1098/rsbl.2013.1067

Cibois, A. 2003. Mitochondrial DNA phylogeny of babblers (Timaliidae). Auk 120: 35-54.

Collar, N. J. and C. Robson. 2007. Family Timaliidae (Babblers) pp. 70–291 in Handbook of the Birds of the World J. (del Hoyo, A. Elliott, & D.A. Christie, eds.). Vol. 12. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.




  page created 1-2 Dec 2015, updated 2 July 2019  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved