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Magpie Goose (Anseranas semipalmata) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • A goose-like bird (Frith and Davies 1961; Huang and Ke 2016; Carboneras and Kirwan 2017; Sun et al. 2017)
    • Only species in Family Anseranatidae
      • Genetically distinct from Family Anatidae (geese, ducks, swans)
        • Not a “true goose”
    • Taxonomic families in Order Anseriformes (according to Sun et al. 2017)
      • Anseranatidae
        • Magpie Goose
          • One species
        • This family was historically classified as Subfamily Anseranatinae (Delacour 1954)
      • Anhimidae
      • Dendrocydnidae
        • Whistling Ducks
          • About 10 species
      • Anatidae
        • Geese, ducks, and swans
          • More than 100 species
  • First scientific description (Olsen 2010)
    • John Latham, 1798
    • Used a painting by Thomas Watling and observation notes by John White
    • Called this bird the “semi-palmated duck”


  • Genus: Anseranas
    • From the Latin anser, meaning “goose,” and anas, meaning “duck” (Simpson 1987)
  • Species: A. semipalmata
    • From the Latin semi, meaning “half,” and palma, meaning “palmed” or “webbed” (Simpson 1987)
    • Refers to the partial webbing of the Magpie Goose’s feet (Johnsgard 1961)


  • Anas semipalmata (Latham, 1798)
  • Anas melanoleuca (Gould 1848)

Common names

  • Magpie Goose, Magpie-Goose (English) (ITIS 2017)
    • Pied Goose (Frith and Davies 1961; Frith 1967)
    • Semipalmated Goose (Gould 1848; Frith 1967)
    • Black and white Goose (Gould 1848; Frith 1967)
  • Canaroie semipalmée (French) (Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)
  • Spaltfußgans (German) (Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)
  • Ganso urraca, gans overo o pintado (Spanish) (Johnsgard 1978; Carboneras and Kirwan 2017)

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • Anseriformes and Galliformes diverged in the Late Cretaceous (Mesozoic) about 70 mya (Livezey 1997; Sun et al. 2017)
    • See Supporting Information of Sun et al. (2017); S4 Figure and S5 Figure
    • See Jarvis et al. (2014) for detailed divergence times of these phylogenetic branches
  • Anseranas was an early offshoot of Anatidae (Huang and Ke 2016)
    • Diverged approximately 57 mya (Paleocene) (Sun et al. 2017)
    • “Major stage in the evolution of the typical waterfowl from a gallinaceous ancestor” (Livezey 1997)
  • Anseranatidae and Anahimidae diverged about 44 mya (mid-Eocene) (Sun et al. 2017)
  • Fossils of Anseranatidae (Worthy and Scanlon 2009)
    • Discovered in North America, Europe, and Australia
    • Oldest fossils from 25 mya (Oligo-Miocene)
  • Fossils from southeastern Australia are rare (Worthy 2008)

Closest known extant relatives

Cultural History


  • Key scientific insights
    • 1798
    • Late 1830s
      • Studied by John Gould (Gould 1848)
        • Gould noted heavy consumption by settlers and importance as food for Aboriginal people in northern Australia
    • 1955
      • Behavior and ecology studies began
        • Purpose: to investigate the potential impact of Magpie Geese on the new rice industry in northern Australia (Frith and Davies 1961; Davies 1963)
      • Little scientific study of Magpie Geese before this period, apart from taxonomic work (Frith and Davies 1961)
  • Exploration and settlement
    • Early European explorers were fascinated by the Magpie Goose’s unusual windpipe (Gould 1848; Olsen 2010)
    • Early-to-mid 1800s
      • Much wetland habitat in coastal, southeastern Australia drained for agriculture and development (Nye et al. 2007)
        • Steep contraction of the range of the Magpie Goose in southeastern Australia due to wetland habitat loss
    • 1845
      • Hunting of Magpie Geese provided essential food when explorers attempted to cross the Australian continent (Olsen 2010)
    • 1877
      • European settlement of Australia began (Nye et al. 2007)
      • Magpie Geese hunted and sold at market (Nye et al. 2007)
        • Eggs also taken

Culture and folklore

  • Non-Aboriginal cultures of Australia
    • Magpie Geese have iconic value for residents and visitors of Northern Territory (Delaney et al. 2009)
    • Hunting of Magpie Geese is a tradition for some people in Northern Territory (Delaney et al. 2009)
      • European settlers have hunted since early 1900s
  • Aboriginal cultures of Australia
    • Highly valued species (Bayliss and Ligtermoet 2017)
      • Iconic, totemic animal (Delaney et al. 2009)
        • Often depicted in paintings and portrayed in ceremonies
        • Feathers used in artefacts
    • Important food resource (Frith 1967; Berndt et al. 1993, except as noted)
      • North Australia (Delaney et al. 2009, except as noted)
        • Hunted in family groups, often for several days or weeks
        • Birds sold or bartered on informal market
        • Historical hunting methods
          • Throwing sticks, causing birds to fall during flight (Gould 1848; Frith 1967)
          • Today, use guns
        • Eggs collected for consumption
          • Traditionally collected by wading or by poling canoe/raft during late wet season (Bayliss and Ligtermoet 2017
      • South Australia (Berndt et al. 1993)
        • Taken throughout the year
    • Rituals and customs
      • Protocols exist to ensure good harvest the following year (Bayliss and Ligtermoet 2017)
        • Hunting practices
        • Cooking methods
        • Sharing of meat and eggs
      • Puberty ritual
        • Among the Yaraldi of South Australia, eating Magpie Geese is forbidden to young boys (Berndt et al. 1993)
          • Part of the narambi taboo
  • Aboriginal cultures of New Guinea
    • Taken by Aboriginal tribes during bird migration to New Guinea (Frith 1967)
    • Hunted with spears (Todd 1979)


Television and film



Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves

Order: Anseriformes (Wagler, 1831) — ducks, geese, swans, screamers, waterfowl

Family: Anseranatidae (Sclater, 1880) — Magpie Goose

Genus: Anseranas (Lesson, 1828)

Species: Anseranas semipalmata (Latham, 1798) — Magpie Goose

Sources: Worthy (2016); Integrated Taxonomic Information System (2017)

Natural History in Art

Artwork depicting Magpie Goose standing in grasses

Magpie Goose artwork.

West Lane street art, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia.

Image credit: © Geoff Whalan via Flickr. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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