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Eurylaimides, Tyrannida and Furnariida: the suboscine passerines

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Here’s a brief extract from the birds chapter (Naish 2012) of The Complete Dinosaur, second edition, with some slight tweaks [get the book here on; here on]. Much more on this volume soon. The section of text here is on suboscine passerines.

A selection of suboscine passerines. A, Red-billed scythebill (Campylorhamphus trochilirostris), a dendrocolaptine furnariid that occurs from Panama south to Argentina. The long bill is used for probing into bark and among epiphytes. Dendrocolaptines, or woodcreepers, were long regarded as a distinct family but appear nested within Furnariidae. B, Amazonian umbrellabird (Cephalopterus ornatus), a cotingid. One of three umbrellabird species, it is the largest South American passerine. C, Wattled false sunbird (Neodrepanis coruscans) of Madagascar, a philepittid suboscine. D, Fairy pitta (Pitta nympha) of tropical Asia, a pittid suboscine. Pittas are the largest Old World suboscine group (containing 32 species) and mostly occur in Asia and Australia (two occur in Africa). They are all short-tailed terrestrial foragers. E, Black-throated huet-huet (Pteroptochos tarnii), a rhinocryptid (tapaculo) of Argentina and Chile. Tapaculos are terrestrial foragers with poor flight abilities, so their former presence in Cuba and the Isle of Youth is surprising because it requires overwater dispersal. Redrawn from other sources by D. Naish.

Within passerines (the so-called ‘perching birds’), molecular work shows that New Zealand wrens are the sister group to Eupasseres, the great clade that includes Suboscines (also called Tyranni) and Oscines. Suboscines includes the Old World broadbills (Eurylaimidae), asities (Philepittidae), and pittas (Pittidae)–all of which are grouped together as Eurylaimides–and the diverse American clade Tyrannides. Eurylaimides is not exclusive to the Old World, as the Sapayoa Sapayoa aenigma of northern South America (once known as the Broad-billed manakin) is a close relative of African and Indo-Malayan broadbills.

A furnariid: Scaly-throated foliage-gleaner (Anabacerthia variegaticeps); photo by Michael Woodruff, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Tyrannides includes tyrant flycatchers, cotingas, and manakins (grouped together as Tyrannida; they possess the simple haplophone syrinx), and the ovenbirds, woodcreepers, and antbirds (grouped together as Furnariida; they possess the complex tracheophone syrinx). Cotingas (Cotingidae) and manakins (Pipridae) are brightly colored neotropical suboscines, many of which exhibit remarkable display adaptations. Manakins make whirring and clicking noises by vibrating modified wing feathers. Woodcreepers (Dendrocolaptinae) are convergently similar to woodpeckers and possess stiffened rectrices, partially fused toes, legs specialized for vertical climbing, and a suite of cranial features that allow them to pry and probe into wood. Ovenbirds incorporate 55 genera and have been described as the most diverse neornithine family in terms of natural history and ecology [Adjacent ovenbird photo by Michael Woodruff]. They include species that strongly resemble oscines from elsewhere in the world: there are ovenbirds that resemble thrushes, dippers, larks, thrashers, sylviid warblers, and creepers.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on passerines, see…

Refs – -

Naish, D. 2012. Birds. In Brett-Surman, M. K., Holtz, T. R. & Farlow, J. O. (eds) The Complete Dinosaur, 2nd edition. Indiana University Press (Bloomington & Indianapolis), pp. 379-423.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. JoseD 11:08 am 07/17/2012

    I’m glad you mentioned “The Complete Dinosaur, second edition” here b/c there’s something that’s been bugging me about it: Why were Geist, Jones & Ruben brought in to write chapters for said book when, as you’ve pointed out b-4, they’re known for “publishing with a hidden agenda“? Many thanks in advance.

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  2. 2. naishd 11:17 am 07/17/2012

    Good question. This sort of thing happens a lot with second editions… there’s a sort of historical inertia where authors get carried across by default. In this case, it might be because they present an ‘opposing view’ to the consensus. I will ask one of the editors.


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  3. 3. THoltz 11:36 am 07/17/2012

    A bit of both of the items Darren mentioned: in part, historical inertia (given they were contributors in edition I), and in part a feeling by at least one of the editors to include an “opposing view” for this particular subject. You’ll notice, though: we did not include a “dissenting view” over solidly understood issues, like bird origins.

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  4. 4. Tayo Bethel 12:06 pm 07/17/2012

    If the rest of the book is as informative as that short extract everyone should have a copy.

    Dr Naish, do you have a PDF of your chapter on birds? If so cna I have a copy? Please?

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  5. 5. naishd 12:11 pm 07/17/2012

    Thanks, Tayo (smiley). Sorry, no pdf yet, and not sure what the deal is when works come from commercial volumes like this. Still trying to get pdfs of my chapters from English Wealden Fossils!


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  6. 6. David Marjanović 2:12 pm 07/17/2012

    Huh. That was short! :-)

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  7. 7. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 2:28 pm 07/17/2012

    “publishing with a hidden agenda“
    My favorite post, period. This guy (quote-miner who commented on that post) is hilarious, in a sad way: . He insulted David M., insinuated that all scientists are male, and set off a flame war of sorts on the comments thread (actually, that was pretty impressive, as he did the first and third ones in the same post). And, of course, there was the BANDit who could’ve been old Peter Mihalda, except that he was less rude. I always get a kick out of that thread, and I read it whenever I’m feeling bad, to reassure myself that there are people who are even more insane than I am.

    Dr. Naish, I am completely obsessed with birds in general. Watch “The Big Year” or read the book to understand what that means. Unbelievably fantastic post, as always.

    Prum, R. O. 2003. Are current critiques of the theropod origin of birds science? Rebuttal to Feduccia (2002). The Auk 120, 550-561.
    From a comment on the hidden agenda post by Dr. Naish. This thing was fantastic; great find!

    I probably shouldn’t have brought the BANDits into this, but I couldn’t resist.

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  8. 8. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 2:30 pm 07/17/2012

    Oh, and the world has needed something like this post for a long time! PLEASE DO SOME MORE BIRD POSTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  9. 9. alcyonidae 4:18 pm 07/17/2012

    Hey Darren – if you wouldn’t mind, could you provide a few reliable references on suboscine syringeal morphology? Most the references I know of are ~150 years old, and my evolutionary morphology chops aren’t quite sharp to know which ones are still considered reliable.

    Thanks a bunch in advance!

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  10. 10. naishd 5:40 pm 07/17/2012

    “Huh. That was short!” (comment 6). I did say that it would be – I chose the extract because it’s a bit longer than a single paragraph, but shorter than a whole page.

    alcyonidae (comment 9): Suboscine syrinx morphology… for all the recent papers published on syringeal anatomy across birds, I don’t know that, for suboscines, there’s any stuff that all that recent – I mean, not more recent than the 1970s. The easiest thing to do is direct you to Irestedt et al. (2002) and advise that you follow the references.


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  11. 11. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 8:50 pm 07/17/2012

    If memory serves, all suboscines have a genetically determined song; I think that syrinx morphology is similar in related species, but that the different songs are determined neurologically.

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  12. 12. Tayo Bethel 11:17 pm 07/17/2012

    Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek:

    that sounds interesting–you dont happen to have an available reference on suboscine syringial morphology and song lying around do you?

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  13. 13. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 2:14 pm 07/18/2012

    @ Tayo Bethel: No, sorry.

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  14. 14. Halbred 4:15 pm 07/18/2012

    I’m gonna go ahead and be “that guy.” I owned the original Complete Dinosaur book and, once I got Dinosauria, 2nd Ed., I had absolutely no use for it. I feel the same way after reading Complete Dinosaur, 2nd Ed. in a bookstore last week. I’m not sure who the audience is, and how the book differs from Dinosauria aside from some expanded sections. I felt like the illustrations and figures throughout were either old or poorly done (or poorly reproduced). Darren’s chapter was the single bright spot–not trying to curry favor, just stating fact.

    I came away from the book feeling like it’s just not necessary. Maybe I’m wrong.

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  15. 15. David Marjanović 8:50 am 07/19/2012

    Ah. Looks very vaguely familiar. And the author doesn’t know the conventions of how to write scientific papers.

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  16. 16. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 2:02 pm 07/19/2012

    @ David Marjanović: Yeah, you argued with that guy in the comments thread. You outargued him, but then again a dead mouse could’ve outargued him. And yes, he still doesn’t know jack **** about paleontology. Or science in general, actually.

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  17. 17. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 4:43 pm 07/19/2012

    Good to know that there are people more crazy than me in the world.

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  18. 18. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 4:48 pm 07/19/2012

    @ David Marjanović :
    Friendly suggestion: get yourself your own blog, and go into competition with Dr. Naish. The world will be made a better place. Also, the rest of us will have twice the cool stuff to obsess over.

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  19. 19. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 5:38 pm 07/19/2012

    Dr. Naish: Given that your previous post was about one of the coolest ?marsupial carnivore clades, are you going to cover flesh roos, marsupial lions and/or thylacines soon? Since borhyaenids are also among the wierdest ?marsupials, is that a sign that you are going to do one on yaklaparidontids next? Slightly obsessive fans want to know!!!

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  20. 20. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 5:58 pm 07/19/2012

    One reason why a) I love your blog, b) the world needs more blogs like yours, and c) you are the third-coolest person in the world: this post fooled me at first:
    I had to reread that post three times to convince myself that it was a fake. Dr. Phylo Genetissust was a little obvious, but the “Blade Runner” joke got me twice in a row. Because of that post, I am always punctual at waking up on April First, only to spend about four bleary-eyed hours waiting for your post.

    Incidentally, you said in the very next post that you would treat the subject seriously at some point. We all await that post eagerly.

    Best wishes to the third-coolest person on Earth.

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  21. 21. Halbred 6:45 pm 07/19/2012

    Dude, please…consolidate. Four posts in a row seems excessive, though your enthusiasm is apparent (and ultimately appreciated).

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  22. 22. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 7:29 pm 07/19/2012

    @ Halbred; sorry, rampant ADHD; will try not to overdo it in the future.

    Just spent way, way, way too long in the archives when I should’ve been focused on my schoolwork. Dammit, this blog is just too freaking good…

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  23. 23. David Marjanović 11:31 am 07/20/2012

    Friendly suggestion: get yourself your own blog

    I will. I won’t compete with anyone, though. There’s really more than enough stuff to blog about for everyone :-)

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  24. 24. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 12:30 pm 07/20/2012

    @ David Marjanović: OK, don’t compete, just agree how to split all of the awesome stuff. Oh, and please do it soon. There is so much interesting stuff in the world, and it’ll probably take Dr. Naish until I’m in graduate school (~6 or 7 years) to get through half of what I’ve been begging for. Besides, if and when you start a blog, you’ll probably be invited to scienceblogs or SciAm within a year, just like Dr. Naish. Since you probably have finished your PhD by now (in response to the pterosaur nutcase, you said that you had your thesis submission in July of that year (might’ve been June, but I’m too lazy to check)), you should also have slightly more time and much less anxiety on your hands than Dr. Naish did in his first year, so you’ll be able to get through more stuff.

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  25. 25. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 12:31 pm 07/20/2012

    Wow, that last post had ADHD all over it.

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  26. 26. Dartian 1:28 pm 07/20/2012

    Amazonian umbrellabird (Cephalopterus ornatus), a cotingid. One of three umbrellabird species, it is the largest South American passerine.

    I have a faint recollection that we once discussed this subject on Tet Zoo 2 (although I can’t be arsed to check), but I think it bears a revisit: Why are there so few large-bodied passerines? The corvids are of course an exception, and then there are the lyrebirds, the umbrellabird, and a few others – but even by generous standards it’s not a very long list. (And even these passerines aren’t really that big; by general bird standards, even the largest ravens are just ‘mid-sized’, i.e., less than 2 kg in weight.) Is there something about, say, passerine functional morphology that makes large size actively disadvantageous?

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  27. 27. BrianL 2:37 pm 07/20/2012


    I think it’s worth noting that larger sizes are rare among ‘land birds’ in general. Taken to mean those neoavians that seem to be more derived than ‘Aequornithes’ (if that’s the right spelling), only *Sagittarius*, condors, the largest vultures and eagles, seriemas, ground hornbills (and *Goura*,dodos and solitaires if they are ‘land birds’) may truly qualify as large, as birds go. To this you can add teratornithids and phorusrhacids, which of course grew from large to gigantic. All in all, for counting the vast majority of extant (and presumably extinct) neornitheans among their number, ‘mid-sized’ and up birds are simply rare among them. Apparently, generalised ‘land birds’ are very good at being small, but not overly good at being large. Those large ones that did evolve are the exceptions that prove the rule. Passeriforms examplify this trend by virtue of their enormous diversity but are not exceptional in this. That being said, the ratio of small vs. mid-sized or larger is very skewed in passeriforms, so there might be some truth to passeriforms being extreme in this regard, even among ‘land birds’.

    I think it is fair to say that your average paleognath, galloanseraean, charadriiform and ‘aequornithean’ is quite a bit larger than your average ‘landbird’. (Note that I’m ignoring Metaves here, out of uncertainty of its status.)

    Do the South American clades in your tweets refer to articles you’ve written about them or just to the drawing? By the way, is that huge-billed flying bird a teratornithid? If so, I didn’t know they had bills a small toucan or a tock would be jealous of!

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  28. 28. BilBy 2:50 pm 07/20/2012

    Hey Darren, at the risk of sounding whiny – when are the crocs back? I mean, birds are great n’all but….crocs Darren, crocs! And at the risk of sounding even whinier, does Sci Am blogs listen to any suggestions? Is it really that difficult to set up a ‘most recent comment’ button?

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  29. 29. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 3:34 pm 07/20/2012

    Second the crocs, even though I’m a paleoornithologist-in-training.

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  30. 30. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 3:39 pm 07/20/2012

    I second the request for more crocs, even though I’m a bird/dinosaur/tree/butterfly (long story) geek, in that approximate order.

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  31. 31. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 3:46 pm 07/20/2012

    Damn it! Stupid SciAm platform submitted two comments for me!

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  32. 32. BrianL 4:09 pm 07/20/2012

    For what it’s worth, I prefer birds over crocodiles. That being said, get the crocodiles over with so that it’s birds again and people won’t complain about there being no crocodile posts.*tongue out of cheek*

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  33. 33. naishd 4:45 pm 07/20/2012

    Thanks for great comments – so many that I can’t keep up. A polite note to one commenter: love the enthusiasm and kind words (thanks) but, yes, please do try and consolidate your thoughts. Experience shows that other commenters can tire of seeing the same person posting repeatedly in the same thread. Friendly advice, ok?

    South American clade names in tweets (comment 27): they refer to animals featured in an illustration I’ve been putting together, but articles on some of these animals are due to appear here soon. Teratorn bills: the animal shown is based on Argentavis, and it really does have a surprisingly long skull.

    When will I get back to crocs? (comment 28). My philosophy when it comes to writing Tet Zoo articles (something I do for fun, in ‘spare’ time) is to do what captures my enthusiasm and interest. I haven’t lost my enthusiasm and interest for crocs, but I need to get some other things out of the way first. Then back to crocs. And petrels.

    As for “does Sci Am blogs listen to any suggestions?”. The answer is a definite yes. But, as to whether those suggestions provoke action in the decision makers at the top of the pile… I’m afraid the answer seems to be no. Most bloggers at SciAm have been requesting an end to logins for, I dunno, something over a year now, and still nothing.


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  34. 34. BilBy 5:03 pm 07/20/2012

    Petrels will make me happy, or obscure reptiles, as will any crypto/debunking stuff – you mention ‘Montauk season’ in your twitter feed. In fact, it will all be good, just looking forward to the crocs again.

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  35. 35. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 5:07 pm 07/20/2012

    @ Dr. Naish: Got it. From now on, I will not repeat comments that praise you over and over (although you are the third-coolest person in the world).

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  36. 36. Mike from Ottawa 8:06 pm 07/20/2012


    “I came away from the book {The Complete Dinosaur} feeling like it’s just not necessary. Maybe I’m wrong.”

    Yes, you are wrong. The Complete Dinosaur is much more addressed to the layman than is The Dinosauria. Whether there’s enough in TDC that’s new since TD came out (2004) to be worth it for a specialist is another matter, but for someone like me, an outsider and onlooker, TDC would be the better choice.

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  37. 37. Bird/tree/dinosaur/etc. geek 8:30 am 07/21/2012

    @ Mike from Ottawa: At the risk of seeming whiny and/or talking too much, I didn’t say that about TCD. Halbred (comment 14) did, and he’s right in that the restorations are mostly outdated and that Dr. Naish’s chapter was the only really good part.

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  38. 38. Mike from Ottawa 11:51 am 07/21/2012

    Sorry etc.geek, I hadn’t noticed someone else had commented in this thread. :-)

    In any event, Dinosauria may be better for specialists, but for laymen, TDC is the better choice.

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  39. 39. David Marjanović 3:44 pm 07/21/2012

    you probably have finished your PhD by now

    Yes, I defended in November 2010. Right now, however, I’m ill, have a paper to review, keep procrastinating, and will need to plan a long and complicated trip as soon as possible, among other things, so… maybe I’ll start blogging next week, maybe much later. :-(

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  40. 40. Dartian 4:31 am 07/23/2012

    I think it’s worth noting that larger sizes are rare among ‘land birds’ in general. Taken to mean those neoavians that seem to be more derived than ‘Aequornithes’

    It’s quite likely that ‘water birds’ are, on average, larger than ‘land birds’ (in mammals, semiaquatic species tend to be larger than their more terrestrial relatives). But if we, for some reason, are restricting this discussion to ‘non-aquatic’ birds, we’re basically just begging another question: Why hasn’t there evolved any water-living species (apart from dippers and a precious few others) among passerines?

    Taken to mean those neoavians that seem to be more derived than ‘Aequornithes’ (if that’s the right spelling), only *Sagittarius*, condors, the largest vultures and eagles, seriemas, ground hornbills (and *Goura*,dodos and solitaires if they are ‘land birds’) may truly qualify as large, as birds go. To this you can add teratornithids and phorusrhacids, which of course grew from large to gigantic.

    Seriemas are actually not very large; the red-legged seriema Cariama cristata only weighs about 1.5 kg (according to Wikipedia), which means that it’s not much larger than a large northern raven Corvus corax. Apart from those you listed, there are a few other other so-called ‘land birds’ that are considerably larger (i.e., heavier) than a raven or a seriema; the kakapo and large owls (Bubo and some extinct taxa) come to mind.

    But again, why should we restrict this discussion only to one particular branch of the neoavian part of the bird tree (as it is currently understood)?

    Apparently, generalised ‘land birds’ are very good at being small, but not overly good at being large.

    So it seems, yes, but I was specifically asking for an explanation for why this should be so.

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  41. 41. vdinets 10:51 am 07/27/2012

    Well, bustards are also “land birds”, and so are crowned-pigeons…
    The reason there are so few aquatic passerines might be their small size. Very few truly aquatic birds are small (a few grebes, sungrebes, water rail… that’s about it, I think).

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  42. 42. David Marjanović 6:40 am 07/28/2012

    Among lissamphibians, aquatic ones are consistently bigger than terrestrial ones, too.

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