Systematics of the Soft-plumaged Petrel Pterodroma mollis (Procellariidae): new insight from the study of vocalizations



The taxonomic status of the populations of the polytypic Soft-plumaged Petrel Pterodroma mollis is controversial. Previous taxonomic studies used morphological characters (measurements and colouration) and univariate statistics. In this study, I add the use of multivariate statistics on morphological (biometry and colouration) and behavioural characters (vocalizations) of the petrels. Vocalizations are especially relevant in nocturnal burrowing petrels (such as the Soft-plumaged Petrel) and act as behavioural isolating mechanisms. The analysis, based on 535 calls from seven of the 11 known breeding localities of the species, showed that physical parameters of the call did not overlap at all between breeding localities in the northern and southern hemispheres but did so within each hemisphere. Conversely, the morphological analysis, based on morphometries from ten localities, displayed wide and significant intra-hemisphere variation, whereas there was no consistent difference between northern and southern parts of the breeding range. Thus analysis of the two sets of characters gave contradictory results. Calls, owing to their role in species-specific recognition in these birds, should be given priority over other characters for species separation. I suggest that only two species should be recognized, Pterodroma mollis and Pterodroma feae, with three subspecies each. I also examined behavioural affinities between P. mollislfeae groups and other gadfly petrels and found that P. mollis/feae were closest to Pterodroma cahow, whilst Pterodroma hasitata on the one hand and Pterodroma phaeopygia and Pterodroma externa (which may comprise two species instead of one) on the other belong to other groups of gadfly petrels.