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10 Fascinating Facts About the Velvet Asity of Madagascar

The Velvet Asity, also known as Philepitta castanea, is a small, bright-green bird belonging to the family Philepittidae. This bird is found exclusively in Madagascar and is known for its unique appearance and secretive nature.

Its scientific name, Philepitta castanea, comes from the Greek words philos, meaning beloved, and epitta, meaning fat, referring to the plump appearance of this bird, and castanea, meaning chestnut, describing the bird’s chestnut-colored plumage.

Identification

Field Identification

The Velvet Asity has a strikingly bright-green plumage that makes it easily identifiable in the Madagascan rainforests where it resides. However, it is known for its secretive and elusive nature, often hiding in the dense foliage of trees and rarely seen on the ground.

The Velvet Asity measures around 11cm in length and weighs approximately 12 grams. The bird’s head is a bright emerald-green color, and the neck and upper breast are a rusty-chestnut hue.

The rest of the body is a deep olive-green, which appears more muted than the head, giving the bird its velvet-like appearance. The bill is a bright blue color, while the legs and feet are black.

Similar Species

The Velvet Asity is a distinctive bird, and there are no other bird species in its habitat that resemble it closely. However, there are other species of asity in Madagascar that share similar features, such as the Common Sunbird-Asity and Yellow-bellied Sunbird-Asity.

While these species share similarities, they are not identical and can be easily distinguished.

Plumages

The Velvet Asity is known to undergo partial molts, meaning it sheds and replaces its feathers regularly. This process is not uniform across all birds, and some individuals may not show signs of molting.

During the molt, the bird’s feathers change in color, becoming darker and more muted. The chestnut coloring goes through a shift, changing to a darker brownish color.

Molts

The Velvet Asity undertakes two molts per year, which means that it replaces its feathers twice a year. The first occurs at the end of the breeding season, while the second occurs at the start of the breeding season.

Outside of these molting periods, the bird’s feathers may show damage or wear from daily wear and tear. Aside from these two molts, the Velvet Asity’s feathers may also be damaged by parasites or other external factors, such as nesting materials or humidity.

Feather damage can also result from the bird’s movements through the foraging and nesting areas. In summary, the Velvet Asity is a unique bird species found only in Madagascar with a striking green plumage and chestnut-colored underside.

Despite being elusive, it can be identified by keen observers who are familiar with its distinct appearance. The bird undergoes molting twice a year, which is essential for replacing feathers that may have been damaged or worn out.

With its colorful appearance and fascinating life cycle, the Velvet Asity is truly a remarkable bird species worth knowing about. Systematics History:

The Velvet Asity has been classified under various taxa throughout history, reflecting its unique morphology and behavior.

The bird was first described by French naturalist Rene Primevere Lesson in 1830, who assigned it the genus name Philepitta. However, it was later classified in the family Eurylaimidae, which groups all broadbills.

In 1978, John A. Schmidtt reclassified the Velvet Asity as the only member of the family Philepittidae, which it belongs to today.

Geographic Variation:

The Velvet Asity is found exclusively in Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa. Despite the bird’s small range, there is geographic variation in its distribution and morphology, reflecting possible genetic differences among populations.

The Velvet Asity is known to inhabit the eastern rainforest of Madagascar and is found at altitudes between 300 and 1,200 meters. Subspecies:

The Velvet Asity has several described subspecies, which are mainly distinguished by differences in morphology and vocalizations.

The subspecies include P. c.

castanea, P. c.

flavifrons, P. c.

ultima, and P. c.

setitanta. P.

c. castanea is found in the northeast of Madagascar and is characterized by a darker green color and a brighter chestnut color on its throat.

P. c.

flavifrons is found in the southeast of Madagascar and is distinguished by a yellow forehead and a broader chestnut stripe. P.

c. ultima is found in the north of Madagascar, and P.

c. setitanta is found in the southeast and is distinguished by a less distinct chestnut stripe and more extensive yellow markings on the forehead.

Related Species:

The Velvet Asity is the only extant species in the family Philepittidae, and the family is monotypic, meaning it consists of a single species group. However, it is believed to be closely related to the broadbills (family Eurylaimidae) and the pittas (family Pittidae), based on molecular data.

These taxa form a clade known as the Eurylaimides, indicating a shared evolutionary ancestry. Historical Changes in Distribution:

Madagascar’s unique flora and fauna have been shaped by its isolation from the African mainland.

The Velvet Asity’s distribution has likely undergone fluctuations in response to changing habitat conditions on the island. Madagascar’s rainforests have been under threat due to deforestation and illegal logging, leading to habitat fragmentation and population declines in many endemic bird species.

Historical changes in distribution have also been documented in relation to human settlement activities, such as slash-and-burn agriculture, which has resulted in the conversion of large tracts of forest into agricultural land. The Velvet Asity is considered a vulnerable species, and its population is declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

The bird’s habitat is also threatened by climate change, which is predicted to alter rainfall patterns and increase the frequency and severity of droughts. Conclusions:

The Velvet Asity is a unique bird species endemic to Madagascar.

It is characterized by a striking green plumage, chestnut-colored underside and elusive nature. Its unique morphological and behavioral characteristics have attracted scientific interest for centuries.

The Velvet Asity has several subspecies, reflecting some differences in distribution, morphology, and vocalizations. Its close evolutionary ancestry to broadbills and pittas is reflected in its taxonomic classification.

Madagascar’s unique forests have been subjected to significant habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation, which have affected multiple endemic bird species, including the Velvet Asity. Efforts are underway to conserve Madagascar’s rich biodiversity, including the Velvet Asity, which is critical to the survival of this bird and many other endemic species.

Habitat:

The Velvet Asity is primarily found in the moist, lowland forests and montane rainforests of eastern Madagascar. It is a highly adaptable species that can also be found in secondary growth vegetation and even plantations.

It is a forest-dependent species and requires dense understory vegetation to forage for food and nest. It is notably absent from the drier western regions of the island.

Movements and Migration:

The Velvet Asity is considered a sedentary species, meaning it does not undertake annual seasonal migrations. However, the species may undergo some movements related to breeding and food availability.

During the breeding season, males are known to travel to different territories to find mates and defend their territories from rivals. Females, on the other hand, tend to remain in their territories and raise their young.

Outside of this period, the birds remain within their territories, foraging for food, and roosting at night in dense vegetation. Factors such as food availability and habitat quality may also influence the bird’s movements.

In seasons of low fruit availability, the Velvet Asity may shift its diet to insects, which may require moving to areas with more insect abundance. Additionally, habitat destruction and fragmentation may also force birds to move to other areas, either in the short or long-term.

Breeding:

The Velvet Asity breeds from September to December, coinciding with the peak of fruit availability in the forest. During this time, males establish territories and produce a variety of vocalizations to attract females.

The male’s display includes a dance that involves showing off his colorful plumage and shaking his head and tail in courtship displays. The female chooses the mate based on the quality of the male’s performance.

After mating, the female constructs a cup-shaped nest made of woven vegetation and spider silk. She lays two eggs, and both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the hatchlings.

The young leave the nest after two weeks, remaining within the territory while they receive food from their parents for another two weeks. Conservation:

The Velvet Asity is considered a vulnerable species, and its population is declining due to habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation.

Despite being a forest-dependent species, it is not often the flagship species in conservation efforts in Madagascar. However, some measures are in place to conserve the Velvet Asity, including anti-deforestation campaigns, habitat protection, and species-specific research.

Conservation efforts are challenging due to the highly fragmented and small population of the birds. Habitat connectivity is also a significant constraint to the bird’s survival since fragmentation can lead to reduced genetic diversity and the accumulation of deleterious mutations.

Thus, habitat conservation must be promoted to facilitate movement across forest fragments to maintain viable populations of the bird. In conclusion, the Velvet Asity is a unique species whose natural habitat is under threat due to human activities.

Despite being a sedentary bird species that does not undertake annual migrations, its movements and breeding activities are still influenced by factors such as food availability and habitat fragmentation. Its survival relies on the preservation and restoration of its habitat.

Therefore, there is a need to undertake efforts towards habitat conservation and fragmentation mitigation to ensure the survival of this bird species. Diet and Foraging:

Feeding:

The Velvet Asity is a forest-dependent species, and its diet and foraging behaviors have evolved to depend on forest fruits and insects.

It is an omnivorous species that feeds primarily on fruit but also feeds on insects, spiders, and other invertebrates. Diet:

The Velvet Asity feeds mainly on rainforest fruits such as figs from the genus Ficus, and also Miconia, plus many other native fruit species.

The bird’s beak is highly adapted to harvesting fruits, which it does with its nimble and flexible tongue. The bird’s fruit diet supplements its nutrition by providing carbohydrates and fiber to its diet.

The Velvet Asity also feeds on insects, including caterpillars, flies, and spiders. It is thought that insects may become an essential part of the bird’s diet in times of low fruit abundance.

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation:

The Velvet Asity has high metabolic and temperature regulation needs, which depend on it having access to a diet rich in simple carbohydrates. Unlike other birds, the Velvet Asity does not have an enlarged proventriculus, which is responsible for breaking down food and regulating its digestion.

Instead, the bird has a more significant small intestine and posterior caeca, which help to maximize nutrient absorption from its food. Additionally, it has a high basal metabolic rate, which allows it to maintain a stable body temperature despite cool forest temperatures.

Sounds and Vocal Behavior:

Vocalization:

The Velvet Asity is known for its unique vocalizations, which are used primarily for mating and territorial displays. The bird’s calls include a sweet, warbling serenade of notes, often repeated rapidly as part of the courtship display.

The calls are also used to establish and defend its territory from rival males. The bird’s vocalizations are quite complex, comprising an array of bird-like and insect-like sounds.

The call notes vary in frequency and duration, ranging from short chirps to long warbling sounds. The Velvet Asity also uses visual displays, including a dance performed by the male when courting females.

During this display, the male presents his colorful plumage and shakes his head and tail. The dance involves rapid movements that create a shimmering effect to showcase his bright plumage.

Conclusions:

The Velvet Asity is an omnivorous species that feeds on fruits and insects. Its diet is supplemented with fruit fibers, carbohydrates, and proteins.

The bird has evolved a high metabolic rate and temperature regulation needs, which require it to have access to a diet rich in simple carbohydrates. The Velvet Asity uses complex vocalizations as part of its courtship and territorial displays.

Its multi-layered vocalizations are comprised of different notes, frequencies, and durations that create unique and complex sound patterns. Overall, the Velvet Asity is a unique and fascinating species of bird, with specific adaptations that demonstrate its importance to the Madagascan ecosystem.

Behavior:

Locomotion:

The Velvet Asity is a highly agile and fast-moving bird species. It moves through the forest understory with ease and is known for its rapid, erratic flight.

The bird is adapted to a forest environment and is well-suited to navigate the obstacles in the forest understory. Self-Maintenance:

The Velvet Asity is a relatively inactive species and spends a lot of time perched, surveying its surroundings.

The bird occasionally preens its feathers, using its bill to arrange its feathers. Preening is an essential behavior for birds, as it helps to keep their feathers clean and in good condition.

Preening also stimulates the oil glands in the bird’s skin, which helps to maintain the integrity and functionality of their feathers. Agonistic Behavior:

The Velvet Asity is a territorial bird species, and males may exhibit aggressive and territorial behavior towards intruders.

During territorial disputes, male Velvet Asities may engage in physical aggression, which involves flapping their wings and scuffling around on the ground. Territorial aggression is essential for maintaining boundaries and protecting resources.

Sexual Behavior:

Male Velvet Asities compete for mates using displays and vocalizations. The male’s displays include a dance that showcases his bright plumage.

Males also commonly use call notes to announce their presence and attract females. Female Velvet Asities choose a mate based on the quality of his displays, vocalizations, and territorial boundaries.

Breeding:

The Velvet Asity breeds during the breeding season, which generally lasts from September to December, coinciding with the peak fruit season for rainforests. The birds are monogamous, meaning they pair up with one mate for the breeding season.

Males establish territories, and female Velvet Asities usually only mate with males with established territories. During courtship, the male Velvet Asity may perform complex vocalization and visual displays to attract females.

After mating, the female constructs a cup-style nest using woven vegetation and spider silk. Demography and Populations:

The Velvet Asity is considered a vulnerable species, with populations declining due to habitat loss and fragmentation.

The bird is endemic to Madagascar, a highly biodiverse region that is threatened by deforestation and illegal logging. Deforestation as a result of agriculture, mining, and urbanization has been a primary driver of habitat loss in Madagascar, particularly for its rainforests, which harbor the Velvet Asity.

The Velvet Asity is susceptible to genetic diversity loss and accumulations of deleterious mutations due to habitat fragmentation. The fragmentation of habitats decreases the gene flow between populations, making them more vulnerable to diseases, predation, and other environmental stressors.

Conclusions:

The Velvet Asity is a highly adapted bird species that has evolved to thrive in the Madagascan rainforests. Its rapid and agile movement, unique vocalizations, and complex mating behaviors make it a fascinating species to study.

Despite being adapted to the rainforest environment, the Velvet Asity is under threat due to deforestation and habitat fragmentation, which reduce its habitat and threaten its survival. As efforts to reduce habitat fragmenation and promoting conservation efforts gradually grow, hopefully the Velvet Asity’s survival can be secured.

The Velvet Asity is a rare and unique bird species endemic to the rainforests of Madagascar. Its striking green plumage, chestnut-colored underside, and complex behaviors make it fascinating and worthy of study.

However, habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation due to human activities threaten the species’ survival. Efforts to promote conservation and reduce human impacts are critical to ensuring the Velvet Asity’s continued existence.

Understanding the factors that affect population demographics, breeding success, and behavior will aid conservation efforts to protect this extraordinary bird species for future generations to enjoy.

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