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The native New Guinean Pitohui is the first documented bird species that contains a potentially poisonous chemical defense- batrachotoxin (Weldon 2000). Ranging from 65-100g in mass and 23cm in length, these omnivorous birds are easily distinguishable by their coloration and plumage patterns (Dumbacher et al. 2008, Dumbacher et al. 2000). Five of the six known species have a red/orange coloration on their breast and back and are black/brown on the head, wings and tail (Tidwell 2001). The sixth species, however, has a white coloration on the breast and back. Although little is known about their reproduction, their nests are generally 2-3m off the ground and it is suggested that they are cooperative breeders (Dumbacher 1999, Ben-Ari 2000, Dumbacher et al. 2000). Unlike other birds, Pitohui are very sociable and travel in mixed species flocks (Dumbacher et al. 2000).
Due to the toxicity of these birds, New Guinean tribal natives consider them both poisonous and inedible, as the toxin’s effects are orally numbing and allergy-like (Weldon and Rappole 1997, Weldon 2000, Dumbacher et al. 2000). This response is caused by neurotoxic steroidal alkaloids, which effectively disrupt voltage-gated sodium channels (Dumbacher et al. 2000, Jonsson et al. 2008). These neurotoxic alkaloids are obtained by the ingestion of meylrid beetles, a common Pitohui dietary item, and are then secreted by the uropygial gland and smeared onto the feathers and skin (Dumbacher et al. 2004, Hagelin and Jones 2007, Weldon 2000, Dumbacher et al. 2000). While the toxicity has been found to vary with each species, it is assumed that the batrachotoxin functions as an anti-predation repellent to both vertebrates and invertebrates, specifically ectoparasites (Jønsson et al. 2008). The two most toxic species are speculated to exhibit aposematism as they are also the most brightly colored (Dumbacher and Fleischer 2001).
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Drumbacher J.P., K. Deiner, L. Thompson, R.C. Fleischer. 2008. Phylogeny of the avian genus Pitohui and the evolution of toxicity in birds. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 49:774-781.
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Dumbacher J.P., T.F.Spande, J.W. Daly. 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.
Drumbacher J.P., A. Wako, S.R. Derrickson, A. Samuelson, T.F. Spande, J.W. Daly. 2004. Melyrid beetles (Choresine): a putative source for the batrachotoxin alkaloids found in poison-dart frogs and toxic passerine birds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101: 15857-15860.
Hagelin J.C., I.L. Jones. 2007. Bird odors and other chemical substances: a defense mechanism or overlooked mode of intraspecific communication. The Auk 124:741-761.
Jønsson K.A., R.C.K. Bowie, J.A. Norman, L. Christidis, J. Fjeldså. 2008. Polyphyletic origin of toxic Pitohui birds suggests widespread occurrence of toxicity in corvoid birds. Biology Letters 4: 71-74.
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