Schodde & Christidis, 2014
The melampittas are a family of New Guinean birds containing two enigmatic species. The two species are found in two genera, the greater melampitta in the genus Megalampitta and the lesser melampitta in the genus Melampitta. These are birds with black plumage that live in montane rainforests. They are little studied and prior to being established as a family in 2014 their taxonomic relationships with other birds were uncertain.
The taxonomic placement of the melampittas was the source of long-standing confusion. The superficial resemblance to the suboscine pittas meant that the two species were originally placed within that family. The name melampitta literally means "black pitta". As the structure of the syrinx was that of an oscine bird the genus was later moved to the Old World babblers (an infamous "taxonomic dustbin"), then to Orthonychidae (where some authorities still retain them) and then to the jewel-babblers and whipbirds (the treatment used by the 2007 Handbook of the Birds of the World). Based on the analysis of DNA–DNA hybridization data the genus was placed with the Paradisaeidae birds of paradise by Sibley and Ahlquist, although these conclusions are not supported by aspects of the behaviour and biology (although they are possibly related to the recently split Cnemophilidae birds of paradise). More recent studies have suggested a relationship with the Corcoracidae (the white-winged chough and apostlebird of Australia). It recently been suggested that the genus be placed its own family. A new family, Melampittidae, was formally erected for the melampittas in 2014. Most researchers also accepted that the both species are congeneric (are both in the same genus), although the two species do have a number of differences, particularly morphologically. After further research in 2014 the same scientists that named the family moved the greater melampitta into its own genus Megalampitta. It is possible that the two species may be separated into two families in the future. The lesser melampitta has three subspecies whereas the greater melampitta is monotypic.
The two melampittas are pitta-like birds that have entirely black plumage and strong long legs and large strong feet. The wings are short and rounded, and the primary feathers are uniquely recurved and emarginated. The feathers of the forecrown are erectile. The lesser melampitta is around 18 cm long and weighs around 30 g, whereas the greater melampitta is larger and considerably heavier at around 29 cm in length and weighs 205 g. The bill of the greater melampitta is also larger than that of the lesser melampitta. It also has specially strengthened remiges and retriges, a possible adaptation to its habit of roosting in limestone caves. The sexes in both species are almost identical, with the only difference being iris colour in the lesser melampitta, the male having a red iris and the female a brown one. The plumage of juvenile birds is the same as adults except they are brown on the lower body.
Distribution and habitat
The melampittas are birds of the New Guinean rainforest and are generally montane species as well, with the range of the lesser melampitta reaching as high as 3,500 m (11,500 ft), with a usual range of around 2,000 to 2,800 m (6,600–9,200 ft). The greater melampitta is restricted to areas of rugged limestone that it apparently roosts and even nests in. Both species have a discontinuous distribution across New Guinea, and the greater melampitta is generally a rare bird that is seldom encountered, although this may because it lives in seldom visited areas.
Diet and feeding
The melampittas are insectivores, although in the case of the greater melampitta, this statement is mostly inference. The lesser melampitta feeds on insects as well as worms, snails, small frogs and even small fruit. It forages on the ground, probing through leaves by flipping them with its bill.
The breeding behaviour of the melampittas is only known in any detail for the lesser melampitta. All that is known of the breeding of the greater melampitta are reports from local people that it creates nests that are baskets of vines suspended in the limestone sinkholes that it roosts in. The lesser melampitta is known to start nesting in the dry season and continue into the beginning of the wet. The nest is a closed dome shape constructed out of live green moss. The female lays a single chalky white and slightly speckled egg, and undertakes all the incubation duties. The incubation is quite long for a small passerine, lasting around 27 days, during which the male will feed the female. Both sexes feed the single chick, which is hatched covered in downy feathers. Unlike their supposed relatives in the birds of paradise family, which feed their chicks by regurgitation, the parents feed the chick whole food that has not been swallowed. The chick takes up to 35 days to fledge, a long time for passerines.
- Boles, W. (2007) "Family Eupetidae (Jewel-babblers and allies) "in del Hoyo, J.; Elliot, A. & Christie D. (editors). (2007). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 12: Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions. ISBN 978-84-96553-42-2
- Sibley, . & Ahlquist, J. (1987). "The Lesser Melampitta is a Bird of Paradise" Emu 87: 66-68
- Firth, C.B. & D.W. Firth (1990) "Nesting Biology and Relationships of the Lesser Melampitta Melampitta lugubris" Emu 90 (2): 65-73
- Schodde, R.; Christidis, L. (2014). "Relicts from Tertiary Australasia: undescribed families and subfamilies of songbirds (Passeriformes) and their zoogeographic signal". Zootaxa. 3786 (5): 501–522.
- Diamond, J. (1983) "Melampitta gigantea: Possible Relation between Feather Structure and Underground Roosting Habits" Condor 85 (1): 89-91