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Australian Brush-turkey (Alectura lathami) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

Megapodes: an introduction

  • Group of birds known as “mound-builders” (Seymour 1991)
  • Family Megapodiae
    • From the Greek megas (“large”) and podi (“foot) (Jones and Göth 2008)
      • Refers to the large feet of these birds
        • Use feet to create and tend mound
    • Birds in this group (Elliott and Kirwan 2017):
      • Brush-turkeys (Alectura, Aepypodius, Talegalla)
      • Scrubfowls (Megapodius)
      • Maleo (Macrocephalon maleo)
      • Malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata)
    • Many species are endangered (Martins et al. 2013)
  • Characteristics
    • Incubation of eggs occurs within a heat-conserving mound (Seymour 1995)
      • Heat originates from decomposing vegetation or external sources (e.g., geothermal)
      • Parents do not sit on the eggs
    • Female lays a series of eggs, one at a time, rather than a clutch (Eiby and Booth 2009)
    • No parental care, except for incubation monitoring (Jones and Göth 2008)
    • Chicks highly independent (Jones and Göth 2008)
      • Well-developed feathers at the time of hatching
  • Australian Brush-turkey
    • Largest extant megapode (Elliott and Kirwan 2017)
    • Only megapode species with the following characteristics (Jones and Göth 2008)
      • Brightly colored head and neck wattle
      • Non-monogamous mating system

Taxonomy

  • Two subspecies recognized (Elliott and Kirwan 2017)
    • May be separate species
  • A. l. robinsoni considered invalid (Elliott and Kirwan 2017)

Nomenclature

  • Common name: Brush-turkey
    • Early European biologists noted this bird’s preference for “brush” (i.e., rain forest) habitats
  • Genus: Alectura
    • From the Greek alektoris (“cock”), and oupá (“tail”) (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
  • Species: A. lathami
    • Named in honor of Dr. John Latham (b. 1740­–d. 1837) (Marchant and Higgins 1993)
      • Made early descriptions of the Australian Brush-turkey in A General History of Birds (1821-1828) (Latham 1821)
        • In Volume 1, Latham called this bird the “New Holland Vulture” (not Brush-turkey) (Jones and Göth 2008)
          • Mistook the bare, red head for that of a vulture
        • In Volume 10, Latham corrected his error (Olsen 2010)
          • Concluded that the bird belonged in a new taxonomic group

Synonyms

  • Scientific names
    • Talegallus lathami (Gray 1861)

Common names

(Flieg 1970; Marchant and Higgins 1993; Elliott and Kirwan 2017, except as noted)

  • Australian Brush-turkey, Yellow-wattled Brush Turkey, Brush Turkey, Scrub Turkey (English)
    • Historically used common names
      • New Holland Vulture (Latham 1821)
      • Wattled Talegalla (Olsen 2010)
  • Talégalle de Latham (French)
  • Australbuschhuhn (German)
  • Talégalo cabecirrojo (Spanish)

Other colloquial or local names

  • Wee-lah (Gray 1861)
  • Gweela (Sorenson 1920)

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

(Shute et al. 2017, and as noted)

  • Oldest fossil megapode originated 24-26 mya (Late Oligocene)
    • Genetic evidence suggests that Megapodiidae diverged anywhere from 45-75 mya (Eocene to Late Cretaceous) (Harris et al. 2014; Prum et al. 2015)
  • Two groups of living (extant) megapodes:
    • Brush-turkeys
    • Scrubfowl
  • Divergence of brush-turkeys and scrubfowl not precisely known, due to a sparse fossil record
    • Wide estimates of 18-25 mya (Oligocene)
  • Brush-turkeys originated from Australia–New Guinea
  • In the Pliocene-Pleistocene era, some brush-turkeys were burrow nesters instead of mound-builders

Closest known extant relatives

  • Likely members of Aepypodius (Birks and Edwards 2002; Elliott and Kirwan 2017; Shute et al. 2017)
    • Based on molecular evidence
    • Share similarities in behavior, brightly colored bare skin, round nostrils, and white eggshell

Cultural History

History

  • Key scientific insights
    • 1821: first scientific description of the Australian Brush-turkey (Olsen 2010)
      • Written by John Latham
      • Incubation of eggs via mound was surprising to naturalists in England
      • See Nomenclature, above

Books

  • Selected non-fiction
  • Children’s books
    • You Turkeys — Michael Gerard Bauer (2010)
      • Story about the challenges of having a garden while living alongside brush-turkeys
    • Bill the Brush Turkey — Cathy Lonsdale (2008)
      • A brush-turkey makes its home in Cathy’s suburban backyard

Poetry

Television and film

Art

  • Early illustrations
    • The Brush-turkey, Talegalla lathami — Joseph Matias Wolf (1861) (Olsen 2010)
      • See p. 131 of Olsen (2010)
    • Australian Brush-turkey — John Gould and Elizabeth Gould (1848) (Olsen 2010)
  • Contemporary: realistic-abstract style
    • Brush Turkey #3 — Graeme Schreiber
    • Australian Brush Turkey — Mikhael van Aken

Pop Culture

Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves — birds

Order: Galliformes — fowls, gallinaceous birds (e.g., turkeys, grouse, chickens, quails, partridge, pheasant)

Family: Megapodiidae — megapodes (brush turkey, malleefowl, scrubfowl)

Genus: Alectura (Latham, 1824)

Species: Alectura lathami (J.E. Gray, 1831) — Australian Brush-turkey

Subspecies: Alectura lathami lathami (J.E. Gray, 1831) — Yellow-wattled Brush-turkey, Yellow-pouched Brush-turkey
Subspecies: Alectura lathami purpureicollis (Le Souref, 1898) — Purple-wattled Brush-turkey, Purple-pouched Brush-turkey
 

Sources: Elliott and Kirman (2017); Integrated Taxonomic Information System (2017); Darryl Jones, personal communication, 2018

Australian Brush-turkey

Early illustration of Australin Brush-turkey

An 1875 illustration of the Australian Brush-turkey.

From p. 294 of Cassell's Book of Birds (1875).

Image credit: Scanned by Internet Archive Book Images (Flickr). No known copyright restrictions.

Boy Laying on Mound

Boy lays on Australian Brush-turkey mound, ca 1899

This photograph, circa 1899, shows the size relationship between a boy and a Brush-turkey mound.

From p. 7 of Bird Lore, published by the National Audubon Society (1899).

Image credit: Made available by Internet Archive Book Images (Flickr). No known copyright restrictions.

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