Ifrita the poisonous passerine

Back in 2006 I took part in the 'ten birds' meme. If infected (do people normally speak of being 'infected' by memes?), you were supposed to write about ten birds that you found 'beautiful'. I decided to distort it slightly and make the birds the ten that I found most 'beautifully interesting'. Here's one of them, the others may or may not follow too.


Originally described by DeVis in 1890 as Todopsis kowaldi, Ifrita was independently 'discovered' by Walter Rothschild in 1898 and named by him Ifrita coronata. A passerine endemic to moist montane forests on New Guinea, Ifrita is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, nobody really knows what it is and over the years it's been classified in several different, disparate passerine families. It's been allied with warblers, log-runners, and corvids. Secondly, it's poisonous. I'll repeat that for those people who hadn't heard it before. It's poisonous. While it's nowadays reasonably well known that pitohuis (a group of six species of pachycephalid passerines, also endemic to New Guinea) produce batrachotoxin in their skin and feathers, it was shown in 2000 that Ifrita does too (Dumbacher et al. 2000). It's thought that the poisons present in these birds are sequested from poisonous insect prey, but last I heard this was still under debate [there seem to be only three photos of Ifrita available on the web; the one shown here is the most oft-used].

As for why these birds are poisonous, it's been widely suggested that the poisons they harbour function as a chemical defence against snakes, raptors and predatory mammals. However, they may also protect the birds against parasites (Mouritsen & Madsen 1994). Incidentally, (1) it seems that not all pitohui species are poisonous (although further study is required to be absolutely sure about this), (2) that another New Guinean passerine, the Rufous shrike-thrush Colluricincla megarhyncha, also produces batrachotoxin, and (3) that multiple other non-poisonous New Guinea passerines (including some other pitohuis) may mimic poisonous pitohuis and therefore gain protection from predators too (Diamond 1992, Dumbacher & Fleischer 2001).

Refs - -

Diamond, J. M. 1992. Rubbish birds are poisonous. Nature 360, 19-20.

Dumbacher, J. P. & Fleischer, R. C. 2001. Phylogenetic evidence for colour pattern convergence in toxic pitohuis: Müllerian mimicry in birds? Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 268, 1971-1976.

- ., Spande, T. F. & Daly, J. W. 2000. Batrachotoxin alkaloids from passerine birds: a second toxic bird genus (Ifrita kowaldi) from New Guinea. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 97, 12970-12975.

Mouritsen, K. N. & Madsen, J. 1994. Toxic birds: defence against parasites? Oikos 69, 357-358.

More like this

It's thought that the poisons present in these birds are sequested from poisonous insect prey, but last I heard this was still under debate

Really? I thought they eat beetles which are very closely related to the beetles that certain poison-dart frogs eat, and that this explains why the birds and the frogs have the exact same hemibatrachotoxin, which is trumpeted by Feduccia (1996, probably also 1999) as a miracle of convergence? This would also explain why several different bird clades that live in the same place contain the same poison.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 20 Nov 2008 #permalink

Was there something about toxin-producing bacteria present in all them?

Anyway, dendrobatid frogs in captivity become non-toxic. Which led to incident during filming one of David Attenborough films. Sir DA was scolded by a zookeeper after a snake ate two of zoo's precious frogs...

I was reading about this bird for the first time the other day. The species was known for years but it wasn't until one caught in a bird net stratched the scientist trying to get it out, and the scientist then had a strange feeling in his hand/arm he realised was poison and after checking for posionous insects/plants he realised it must have come from the bird


And its got a cool mythical name...

What is the proper way to pronounce "pitohui"?
Could it possibly be anything like the word sometimes used to represent the sound of expectoration: "ptooey"? That would be deliciously appropriate.
Seriously, I'd like to know.

it seems that not all pitohui species are poisonous

It also seems that not all pitohuis are pitohuis, though according to that paper (in press at Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution), toxins have been found in all species assigned to Pitohui except P. incertus. It seems that toxicity has arisen at least five or six times within corvoids - as well as four separate "pitohui" clades and the ifrit, at least one species of Colluricincla shrike-thrush is toxic.

Language itself is a meme that has infected hominids, leading to cerebral hypertrophy, high natal mortality, susceptibility to religion, internet addiction, obesity, climate crisis, and mass extinction.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 20 Nov 2008 #permalink

Can batrachotoxins be detected in the harder integumentary parts (e.g. rhamphotheca, podotheca, claw)? It seems that researchers did not test this (probably because those parts are not palatable for predators), but is it unlikely that it could be detected in those parts?

. . . the others may or may not follow too.
I do hope that they follow.

What is the proper way to pronounce "pitohui"?

Well, you say "p", then you say "i", then "t", then "o", then "h", then "u", and then "i".

With the non-English values for the vowels, obviously.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 21 Nov 2008 #permalink

Originally described by DeVis in 1890 as Todopsis kowaldi

So why isn't it still known by that name? Did it get the Manospondylus gigas treatment?

@chris y: Apparently because it was decided not to fall into that genus. A Google search shows that Todopsis is an older genus than 1890; Alfred Russel Wallace named Todopsis grayi in "On Some New and Rare Birds From New Guinea", 1862, and referred to another species of it there (the link to the text is in my URL to avoid the scienceblogs spam filter).

"Originally described by [Charles Walter] DeVis" is for Australasian vertebrate taxonomy what "Once upon a time" is for fairy tales. A quite low proportion of his new species turn out not to be junior synonyms, nomina dubia or nomina nuda, and the retention index for his genera is even lower.
There was a classic takedown by G. A. Boulenger in the 1890s (quoted by Ingram 1990, which I can't now put my hand to), quite delicately worded (as befitted the times) but lamenting the fact that DeVis, despite his evident enthusiasm, was just not competent to identify animals. Then Boulenger retired from the BMNH in ~1905, and DeVis carried on at the Queensland Museum till 1915 or so, apparently unembarrassed and unconstrained. One of his preferred venues for publication was his pseudonymous column (as 'Thickthorn') in the Brisbane Courier Mail, which often anticipated more formal announcement of taxonomic results in Memoirs of the Queensland Museum.
His successor at the QM, Heber Longman, was also not formally trained in sciences (and also kept a newspaper column topped up) but (leaving aside his work on fossil snakes, which was not particularly helpful) did some important work that has not needed quite so much revision.
Vert Palaeo symposia held at the QM (one preceding the first CAVEPS, the other in that series) have been named after both DeVis (1987, first palaeo meeting I attended) and Longman (2003, missed it but slipped a paper into the proceedings).

Ingram, Glen J. 1990. The works of Charles Walter de Vis, alias "Devis," alias " Thickthorn". Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 28(1):1-34.

Turner, S. 2005. Heber Albert Longman (1880-1954), Queensland Museum scientist: a new bibliography. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum 51(1):237-257.

By John Scanlon FCD (not verified) on 25 Nov 2008 #permalink


One of his preferred venues for publication was his pseudonymous column (as 'Thickthorn')

I've seen his name spelled "Devis", "DeVis", "De Vis" and "de Vis". Using a pseudonym probably seemed like an attractive option to him ...

I've known about the Pitohui since 1993, but this one was brought to my attention in 2001.

I was like, 9 in 1993, at least that was before Pokemon.

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 25 Nov 2008 #permalink