Western Superb Bird-of-Paradise Lophorina superba


Taxonomic note

Lophorina superba, L. feminina and L. minor (Handbook of the Birds of the World and BirdLife International 2020) have been split from L. superba (del Hoyo and Collar 2016). Irestedt et al. (2017) presented a case for splitting Superb Bird-of-paradise Lophorina superba into three species.  

On morphology alone the western group (superba and niedda) reaches species rank on ‘Tobias’ scores for the male birds’ unspotted breast-shield (plumage difference, score 1); elongate and outcurved outer cape feathers (plumage difference, score 3); different-shaped cape feather tips plus lack of ‘hair-fringing’ (plumage difference, score 2); shorter, narrower ‘ultra extensions’ (effect size vs feminina and latipennis for length −3.43 and for width −3.09; mensural difference, score 2); and longer tail (effect size vs feminina and latipennis 2.78; mensural difference, score 2). Further differences, but with scores not countable, are apparent in western females, which are much darker-headed than taxa in central New Guinea (ns[2]),with an effect size for the divergent tail lengths of western females (sample size only 8) vs central New Guinea of 5.6 (ns because of low sample size [3]). Moreover, the display and vocalisations of males in this western group have been shown to be distinct on a number of points (Scholes & Laman 2018), with the ‘cape presentation display’ being exactly as predicted in Irestedt et al. (2017) (‘the outer tips of the cape should curl much further under the breast plate in Vogelkop populations’). Further Tobias scores for the clear vocal differences in the Vogelkop group would seal the certainty of the split, but regrettably Scholes & Laman (2018) did not deal with the problem pointed out in Irestedt et al. (2017), that ‘voices resembling those of Vogelkop birds have also been recorded from the western cordillera (XC26375 and XC140367 on the Xeno-Canto website)’.

The split of Lophorina minor is less straightforward. Irestedt et al. (2017) claimed to be using ‘integrative taxonomy’ in making their decisions, but in this case they were dealing with a very early divergence of minor from the other taxa in the superba complex that yet involved only ‘limited morphological and vocal differentiation’. Instead they used geographical relationship as the lever by which to raise minor to species rank: ‘Parapatric replacement in the same life zones marks speciation between Papuan Peninsula minor and cordillera populations in Lophorina… partly contrary to morphological and vocal indicators’ (i.e. less ‘integrative taxonomy’ than its opposite). Parapatric arrangements certainly demonstrate the reproductive incompatibility of the two taxa involved, but true parapatry requires those taxa to be in geographical contact, not separated by a river valley or a mountain range. It is hard to see how minor can have a genuine parapatric relationship with the taxon/taxa to its west, and indeed this seems somewhat implausible if minor is really so much longer diverged than its neighbour taxon/taxa and if parapatric relationships tend to involve taxa of roughly equal age, as a reading of Haffer (1992) seems to imply.
The Tobias criteria allow a score of 3 for a parapatric relationship, but we set this aside as not demonstrated in this case. These criteria also have no way of providing a score for genetic distance, which has been perceived as a flaw in the system but which reflects the fact that evolution proceeds at different speeds in different contexts and that therefore genetic distance, however great, is not in isolation a dependable indicator of reproductive incompatibility (Webb et al. 2011). Males of minor are, despite their name, only marginally shorter in wing and tail than their neighbour taxon/taxa (effect size vs feminina and latipennis −1.37, −1.41 and −1.24 for length and width of ultra extensions and length of tail, repectively; score 1), and they are identical in colour pattern and plumage structure (and apparently also in display and voice). This then leaves the females, with black head vs pale-freckled grey-brown crown and dark-freckled pale supercilium in feminina and latipennis(score 3), slightly darker upperparts and barring on underparts (1), and notably different stony-white vs rufous-tinged buff barring on underparts (2). On this basis minor just reaches the score set for species status, albeit on characters that scarcely seem likely to serve in combination as a prezygotic deterrent. Scores of minor vs superba with niedda are similar to those involved in the split of feminina and latipennis.

Irestedt et al. (2017) used an illustration of the lost type specimen of the species to reidentify the type locality as from the western end of the Central Cordillera of New Guinea, which would have significant consequences for the naming of the new species. However, Elliott et al. (2020) have argued that the reidentification of the type locality of superba as the Central Cordillera derives from a flawed consideration of the characters in the illustration of the lost type. In reality this illustration matches the western group in having (i) an unspotted green breast; (ii) distinct but short ‘ultra extensions’ to the breast-shield; (iii) a cape feather at least as long as the wing; (iv) an asymmetrical shape to the tips of the inner cape feathers; (v) no hair-fringing to the cape feathers; (vi) the elongate, out-curved feathers of the outer cape; and (vii) a well-graduated tail. Apart from this Elliott et al. (2020) provide ample evidence that at the time the type specimen was acquired trade of any kind of artefact of interest to westerners did not exist in New Guinea except at ports on the western peninsula, and no trade avenues existed between these ports and the main body of New Guinea. Therefore there is no case to justify the rearrangement of names as presented in Irestedt et al. (2017) and the three species adopted are:
Western Superb Bird-of-paradise Lophorina superba (western New Guinea), with subspecies L. s. superba (Arkfak Mountains) and L. s. niedda (Wandammen Mountains); Central Superb Bird-of-paradise Lophorina feminina (central New Guinea), L. f. feminina (Weyland Mountains east to central New Guinea) and L. f. latipennis (Central Highlands east and north to Huon Peninsula); and Eastern Superb Bird-of-paradise Lophorina minor (south-eastern New Guinea).

Taxonomic source(s)
Handbook of the Birds of the World and BirdLife International. 2020. Handbook of the Birds of the World and BirdLife International digital checklist of the birds of the world. Version 5. Available at:

IUCN Red list criteria met and history
Red List criteria met
Critically Endangered Endangered Vulnerable
- - -

Red List history
Year Category Criteria
2020 Least Concern
Species attributes

Migratory status not a migrant Forest dependency Medium
Land mass type Average mass -

Estimate Data quality
Extent of Occurrence breeding/resident (km2) 30,200 medium
Number of locations -
Severely Fragmented -
Population and trend
Value Data quality Derivation Year of estimate
No. of mature individuals unknown not applicable not applicable 0
Population trend Decreasing suspected -
Decline (3 years/1 generation past) - - -
Decline (5 years/1 generation past) - - -
Decline (10 years/1 generation past) - - -
Decline (10 years/3 generation future) - - -
Decline (10 years/3 generation past and future) - - -
Number of subpopulations - - -
Percentage in largest subpopulation - - -
Generation length (yrs) 4.16 - - -

Population justification: The global population size has not been quantified, but the species is reported to be not uncommon (Frith and Beehler 1998).

Trend justification: The species is tentatively suspected to be in decline due to habitat loss (Global Forest Watch 2020) and potentially unsustainable levels of hunting. However, the rate of forest loss within the mapped range of the species is low, measured at 1.2% between 2001 and 2019 (Global Forest Watch 2020), equating to less than 1% loss over the past three generations.

Country/territory distribution
Country/Territory Occurrence status Presence Resident Breeding Non-breeding Passage
Indonesia N Extant Yes

Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBA)
Country/Territory IBA Name

Habitats & altitude
Habitat (level 1) Habitat (level 2) Importance Occurrence
Artificial/Terrestrial Rural Gardens suitable resident
Artificial/Terrestrial Subtropical/Tropical Heavily Degraded Former Forest suitable resident
Forest Subtropical/Tropical Moist Montane major resident
Altitude 1650 - 1900 m Occasional altitudinal limits 1000 - 2300 m

Threats & impact
Threat (level 1) Threat (level 2) Impact and Stresses
Biological resource use Logging & wood harvesting - Unintentional effects: (subsistence/small scale) [harvest] Timing Scope Severity Impact
Ongoing Minority (<50%) Negligible declines Low Impact: 4
Reduced reproductive success

Purpose Primary form used Life stage used Source Scale Level Timing
Handicrafts, jewellery, etc. - - Non-trivial Recent
Pets/display animals, horticulture - - International Non-trivial Recent

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Species factsheet: Lophorina superba. Downloaded from on 29/01/2022. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2022) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from on 29/01/2022.