Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 151, Issue 2, pp 309–315 | Cite as

What are we dealing with? An explicit test reveals different levels of taxonomical diagnosability in the Sylvia cantillans species complex

  • Mattia Brambilla
  • Severino Vitulano
  • Andrea Ferri
  • Fernando Spina
  • Elena Fabbri
  • Ettore Randi
Original Article


Diagnosability is the ability to discriminate between similar taxa, including sibling or cryptic taxa. We have developed an explicit test of diagnosability, using the Sylvia cantillans species complex as a model, which compares an identification based on phenotype with that based on genotype. Individual warblers sampled during their migration in central Italy were first identified to the (sub)species level using putatively diagnostic plumage traits. Nucleotide sequences of a (598-bp) fragment of the mitochondrial (mt)DNA cytochrome b were then used to assign each individual to distinct phylogenetic clades, as determined by reference haplotypes that had been sequenced in breeding individuals. This resulted in the construction of clearly distinct clades corresponding to known taxa of the complex. The new haplotypes were assigned to one of the previously identified groups (corresponding to three different taxa); no sample was assigned outside of them. In contrast, when plumage traits were used to assign the birds into distinct phylogenetic clades, 11 of 58 birds were classified as ‘uncertain/intermediate’ among two taxa, while five were classified differently with the two methods. A perfect agreement between the two methods was found for only for one taxon (Sylvia subalpina, syn. S. moltonii). For the other two taxa of the complex, diagnosability is therefore not guaranteed, and their field identification by hand should be carefully addressed. We provide here an example of an explicit test for establishing the diagnosability of taxa in which two or more ‘markers’ can be used for determining discordant identification and/or unambiguous diagnosability. Our results outline the importance of considering different features for taxa diagnosis and illustrate the weakness of visual appearance-based identification (currently widely used for taxa determination) in our study complex.


Appearance Identification mtDNA Plumage Subspecies Variability 



We are very grateful to all the people who helped us with field and laboratory work, and especially to F. Akriotis, P. Arrojo, N. Baccetti, J. Blondel, R. Carini, J. Cecere, F. Davoli, A. De Faveri, A. Flitti, P. Giusti, F. Guidali, O. Hameau, K. Kravos, D. Iavicoli, N. Mucci, P. Perret, E. Savo, D. Sere, A. Sorace, E. Strinella and P. Sunyer. A special thanks goes to O. Janni, M. Wink and an anonymous reviewer for very helpful comments and to all volunteer ringers at Ventotene, who were partly supported by a grant from the Riserva Naturale Statale Isole di Ventotene e Santo Stefano. We also thank the Municipality of Ventotene and the Centro di Educazione Ambientale Luca Bertolaccini for support and logistics. Results from “Progetto Piccole Isole” ISPRA: paper n 39.

Supplementary material

10336_2009_457_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (320 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 319 kb)


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Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mattia Brambilla
    • 1
  • Severino Vitulano
    • 2
  • Andrea Ferri
    • 2
  • Fernando Spina
    • 2
  • Elena Fabbri
    • 2
  • Ettore Randi
    • 2
  1. 1.Fondazione Lombardia per l’AmbienteSettore Biodiversità e Aree protetteMilanItaly
  2. 2.Istituto Superiore per la Protezione e la Ricerca Ambientale (ISPRA) Sede amministrativa ex-INFSOzzano EmiliaItaly

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