This painting of four subspecies of the Turquoise Tanager (Tangara mexicana) channels my inner child. That’s because my childhood ambition was to become both a bird illustrator and a museum or university-based ornithologist, and when bird artist T.M. Short showed me how dark robins from Newfoundland were compared to those from Arizona, or how Song Sparrows from Alaska were so much bigger and darker than the ones in my garden, I was hooked on the whole concept of regional variation within a species. I was around 7 or 8 years old but the more I learned about evolutionary processes the more sense it made, the more interesting the shapes and forms of all kinds of animals and plants became. But my dreams of a higher education crashed at age 16 when I contracted encephalitis, and I finally had to drop out of school. But I never lost my enthusiasm for ornithology or illustration. Mind you, the line between “art” and “illustration” tends to blur and even vanish, and is often more a reflection of function and subjective values than anything objective or definable.
This little painting shows four subspecies (or maybe three, I’ll get to that in a moment) of a species that, in spite of its scientific name, is only found in South America. Each subspecies has “diverged” in small, but discernable ways, from common ancestry, and we distinguish subspecies by adding a third name (making it a trinomial) to the scientific name. Upper left is Tangara mexicana vieilloti, found only in Trinidad. Upper right is T. m. boliviana, found east of the Andes from Ecuador and Peru west through much of Brazil, to northern Bolivia. In the lower right is T. m. mexicana, the “nominate” subspecies, so called as it was the first described by science. It is found from the Guianas south into central Brazil. And that brings us to the largest and whitest form, T. m. brasiliensis, which occurs in the greatly threatened Atlantic forest region of south-eastern Brazil. They are smaller than a House Sparrow.
But, ornithologists are at odds over whether it should be regarded as a subspecies, or a full species in its own right, the White-bellied Tanager, T. brasiliensis. What that means is that its divergence has reached the point where T. (m) brasiliensis no longer randomly interbreeds with other subspecies if or where their populations might meet – a process called speciation.
Of course, the birds don’t care how we classify them, nor do most people. What fascinates me is the idea of naturally evolving variations, and the process that ultimately leads, if allowed to do so, to new species on the planet. The child I was would have liked this little painting. It is in oils, on compressed hardboard, and is 12 by 9 inches. And just for fun I’ve added another neotropical painting I did, this of the Red-headed Barbet (Eubucco bourcierii), from Costa Rica south into South America, exactly thirty years ago. Here I chose a single bird, and showed several different poses – based on sketches. There’s pretty well no market for these sorts of paintings, or illustrations, but they are fun to do.
Barry Kent MacKay
Director, Animal Alliance of Canada
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