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1.  Dating the diversification of the major lineages of Passeriformes (Aves) 
Background
The avian Order Passeriformes is an enormously species-rich group, which comprises almost 60% of all living bird species. This diverse order is believed to have originated before the break-up of Gondwana in the late Cretaceous. However, previous molecular dating studies have relied heavily on the geological split between New Zealand and Antarctica, assumed to have occurred 85–82 Mya, for calibrating the molecular clock and might thus be circular in their argument.
Results
This study provides a time-scale for the evolution of the major clades of passerines using seven nuclear markers, five taxonomically well-determined passerine fossils, and an updated interpretation of the New Zealand split from Antarctica 85–52 Mya in a Bayesian relaxed-clock approach. We also assess how different interpretations of the New Zealand–Antarctica vicariance event influence our age estimates. Our results suggest that the diversification of Passeriformes began in the late Cretaceous or early Cenozoic. Removing the root calibration for the New Zealand–Antarctica vicariance event (85–52 Mya) dramatically increases the 95% credibility intervals and leads to unrealistically old age estimates. We assess the individual characteristics of the seven nuclear genes analyzed in our study. Our analyses provide estimates of divergence times for the major groups of passerines, which can be used as secondary calibration points in future molecular studies.
Conclusions
Our analysis takes recent paleontological and geological findings into account and provides the best estimate of the passerine evolutionary time-scale currently available. This time-scale provides a temporal framework for further biogeographical, ecological, and co-evolutionary studies of the largest bird radiation, and adds to the growing support for a Cretaceous origin of Passeriformes.
doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-8
PMCID: PMC3917694  PMID: 24422673
Passeriformes; Molecular dating; Fossil calibrations; New Zealand–Antarctica vicariance
2.  Convergent evolution, habitat shifts and variable diversification rates in the ovenbird-woodcreeper family (Furnariidae) 
Background
The Neotropical ovenbird-woodcreeper family (Furnariidae) is an avian group characterized by exceptionally diverse ecomorphological adaptations. For instance, members of the family are known to construct nests of a remarkable variety. This offers a unique opportunity to examine whether changes in nest design, accompanied by expansions into new habitats, facilitates diversification. We present a multi-gene phylogeny and age estimates for the ovenbird-woodcreeper family and use these results to estimate the degree of convergent evolution in both phenotype and habitat utilisation. Furthermore, we discuss whether variation in species richness among ovenbird clades could be explained by differences in clade-specific diversification rates, and whether these rates differ among lineages with different nesting habits. In addition, the systematic positions of some enigmatic ovenbird taxa and the postulated monophyly of some species-rich genera are evaluated.
Results
The phylogenetic results reveal new examples of convergent evolution and show that ovenbirds have independently colonized open habitats at least six times. The calculated age estimates suggest that the ovenbird-woodcreeper family started to diverge at ca 33 Mya, and that the timing of habitat shifts into open environments may be correlated with the aridification of South America during the last 15 My. The results also show that observed large differences in species richness among clades can be explained by a substantial variation in net diversification rates. The synallaxines, which generally are adapted to dry habitats and build exposed vegetative nests, had the highest diversification rate of all major furnariid clades.
Conclusion
Several key features may have played an important role for the radiation and evolution of convergent phenotypes in the ovenbird-woodcreeper family. Our results suggest that changes in nest building strategy and adaptation to novel habitats may have played an important role in a diversification that included multiple radiations into more open and bushy environments. The synallaxines were found to have had a particularly high diversification rate, which may be explained by their ability to build exposed vegetative nests and thus to expand into a variety of novel habitats that emerged during a period of cooling and aridification in South America.
doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-268
PMCID: PMC2787525  PMID: 19930590
3.  An unexpectedly long history of sexual selection in birds-of-paradise 
Background
The birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae) form one of the most prominent avian examples of sexual selection and show a complex biogeographical distribution. The family has accordingly been used as a case-study in several significant evolutionary and biogeographical syntheses. As a robust phylogeny of the birds-of-paradise has been lacking, these hypotheses have been tentative and difficult to assess. Here we present a well supported species phylogeny with divergence time estimates of the birds-of-paradise. We use this to assess if the rates of the evolution of sexually selected traits and speciation have been excessively high within the birds-of-paradise, as well as to re-interpret biogeographical patterns in the group.
Results
The phylogenetic results confirm some traditionally recognized relationships but also suggest novel ones. Furthermore, we find that species pairs are geographically more closely linked than previously assumed. The divergence time estimates suggest that speciation within the birds-of-paradise mainly took place during the Miocene and the Pliocene, and that several polygynous and morphologically homogeneous genera are several million years old. Diversification rates further suggest that the speciation rate within birds-of-paradise is comparable to that of the enitre core Corvoidea.
Conclusion
The estimated ages of morphologically homogeneous and polygynous genera within the birds-of-paradise suggest that there is no need to postulate a particularly rapid evolution of sexually selected morphological traits. The calculated divergence rates further suggest that the speciation rate in birds-of-paradise has not been excessively high. Thus the idea that sexual selection could generate high speciation rates and rapid changes in sexual ornamentations is not supported by our birds-of-paradise data. Potentially, hybridization and long generation times in polygynous male birds-of-paradise have constrained morphological diversification and speciation, but external ecological factors on New Guinea may also have allowed the birds-of-paradise to develop and maintain magnificent male plumages. We further propose that the restricted but geographically complex distributions of birds-of-paradise species may be a consequence of the promiscuous breeding system.
doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-235
PMCID: PMC2755009  PMID: 19758445
4.  Phylogenetic relationships of typical antbirds (Thamnophilidae) and test of incongruence based on Bayes factors 
Background
The typical antbirds (Thamnophilidae) form a monophyletic and diverse family of suboscine passerines that inhabit neotropical forests. However, the phylogenetic relationships within this assemblage are poorly understood. Herein, we present a hypothesis of the generic relationships of this group based on Bayesian inference analyses of two nuclear introns and the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene. The level of phylogenetic congruence between the individual genes has been investigated utilizing Bayes factors. We also explore how changes in the substitution models affected the observed incongruence between partitions of our data set.
Results
The phylogenetic analysis supports both novel relationships, as well as traditional groupings. Among the more interesting novel relationship suggested is that the Terenura antwrens, the wing-banded antbird (Myrmornis torquata), the spot-winged antshrike (Pygiptila stellaris) and the russet antshrike (Thamnistes anabatinus) are sisters to all other typical antbirds. The remaining genera fall into two major clades. The first includes antshrikes, antvireos and the Herpsilochmus antwrens, while the second clade consists of most antwren genera, the Myrmeciza antbirds, the "professional" ant-following antbirds, and allied species. Our results also support previously suggested polyphyly of Myrmotherula antwrens and Myrmeciza antbirds. The tests of phylogenetic incongruence, using Bayes factors, clearly suggests that allowing the gene partitions to have separate topology parameters clearly increased the model likelihood. However, changing a component of the nucleotide substitution model had much higher impact on the model likelihood.
Conclusions
The phylogenetic results are in broad agreement with traditional classification of the typical antbirds, but some relationships are unexpected based on external morphology. In these cases their true affinities may have been obscured by convergent evolution and morphological adaptations to new habitats or food sources, and genera like Myrmeciza antbirds and the Myrmotherula antwrens obviously need taxonomic revisions. Although, Bayes factors seem promising for evaluating the relative contribution of components to an evolutionary model, the results suggests that even if strong evidence for a model allowing separate topology parameters is found, this might not mean strong evidence for separate gene phylogenies, as long as vital components of the substitution model are still missing.
doi:10.1186/1471-2148-4-23
PMCID: PMC509417  PMID: 15283860
5.  Inter-familial relationships of the shorebirds (Aves: Charadriiformes) based on nuclear DNA sequence data 
Background
Phylogenetic hypotheses of higher-level relationships in the order Charadriiformes based on morphological data, partly disagree with those based on DNA-DNA hybridisation data. So far, these relationships have not been tested by analysis of DNA sequence data. Herein we utilize 1692 bp of aligned, nuclear DNA sequences obtained from 23 charadriiform species, representing 15 families. We also test earlier suggestions that bustards and sandgrouses may be nested with the charadriiforms. The data is analysed with methods based on the parsimony and maximum-likelihood criteria.
Results
Several novel phylogenetic relationships were recovered and strongly supported by the data, regardless of which method of analysis was employed. These include placing the gulls and allied groups as a sistergroup to the sandpiper-like birds, and not to the plover-like birds. The auks clearly belong to the clade with the gulls and allies, and are not basal to most other charadriiform birds as suggested in analyses of morphological data. Pluvialis, which has been supposed to belong to the plover family (Charadriidae), represents a basal branch that constitutes the sister taxon to a clade with plovers, oystercatchers and avocets. The thick-knees and sheathbills unexpectedly cluster together.
Conclusion
The DNA sequence data contains a strong phylogenetic signal that results in a well-resolved phylogenetic tree with many strongly supported internodes. Taxonomically it is the most inclusive study of shorebird families that relies on nucleotide sequences. The presented phylogenetic hypothesis provides a solid framework for analyses of macroevolution of ecological, morphological and behavioural adaptations observed within the order Charadriiformes.
doi:10.1186/1471-2148-3-16
PMCID: PMC184354  PMID: 12875664

Results 1-5 (5)