Hybridization has challenged taxonomy, since hybridizing forms could be stable evolutionary entities or ephemeral forms that are blending together. The island of Sri Lanka has 2 subspecies of the flameback woodpecker D. benghalense: D. b. jaffnense in the north and D. b. psarodes in the south. Red plumage separates the endemic phenotype D. b. psarodes from other subspecies of D. benghalense. Despite these differences, intermediate phenotypes in north-central Sri Lanka discouraged the elevation of D. b. psarodes into a full species. The recent HBW and BirdLife International checklist, however, has elevated D. b. psarodes to a full species (D. psarodes), primarily based on its plumage. To objectively evaluate whether this taxonomic elevation is warranted, we examined the phenotypic and genetic affinities of D. psarodes within the D. benghalense cluster. In doing that we provide the first quantitative phenotypic and genetic analysis across a hybrid zone for an Old World woodpecker group. We sampled woodpeckers along a line transect across the island and measured body shape/size, plumage, and genetic variation in a mitochondrial gene (Cytb). Plumage color ranged from red in the south to yellow in the north, with varying proportions of orange in north-central Sri Lanka (an area of ~66 km). Morphology (body shape/size) and plumage characters showed a clear separation. There are 2 mitochondrial haplotype groups, one in the north and one in the south. A mixture of north and south haplotypes were seen in north-central Sri Lanka. Width of the hybrid zone suggests that some form of selection limits the spread of hybrids into the range of parental forms. Morphological, plumage, and genetic traits are all indicative of limited hybridization in a narrow zone between the 2 taxa, supporting the treatment of D. psarodes as a distinct species. This study provides an illustrative example of extensive hybridization between stable taxonomic entities, discouraging the practice of merging hybridizing forms as single species.
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Vol. 133 • No. 3