HomeScienceGeneticsMapping the family tree of Old World flycatchers

Mapping the family tree of Old World flycatchers

image: The European Robin is more closely related to the Afrotropical White-cheeked Robin-Chat than to the East Asian Japanese Robin, despite the close resemblance between the European and Japanese Robins and the markedly different plumage of the European Robin and the White-brooded Robin- Chat. The similarity between the two robins is an example of convergent evolution, meaning that species can evolve similar appearances independently, for example through similar lifestyles. The Thrush nightingale and the Bluethroat are close relatives and also more closely related to the Japanese robin than to the European robin. However, the Bluethroat’s closest relative is found in the Himalayas and the Chinese mountains.
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Credits: Tomas Carlberg, Hans Bister and Craig Brelsford/shanghaibirding.com.

The robin’s closest relatives are found in tropical Africa. The European robin is therefore not closely related to the Japanese robin, despite their great similarity in appearance. This is confirmed by a new study of the Old World flycatcher family, to which these birds belong. The study covers 92 percent of the more than 300 species in this family.

“The fact that the European and Japanese robins are so similar despite not being closely related is one of many examples of so-called convergent evolution in this group of birds. Similarities in appearance can evolve among distant relatives, for example due to lifestyle similarities,” says Per Alström of Uppsala University, one of the researchers behind the study published in Molecular phylogenetics and evolution.

The Old World flycatcher family consists of birds belonging to more than 300 species distributed across Europe, Asia, and Africa. The family includes not only flycatchers, but also nightingales, babblers, wheatears, redstarts, whistling thrushes, forktails and other exotic groups. Twelve species breed in Sweden, of which the robin, the pied flycatcher and the thrush nightingale are the best known. All but three of these species winter in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.

Researchers from Uppsala University, the University of Gothenburg and the University of Florida used DNA to reconstruct the family tree of 92 percent of the species in the Old World flycatcher family. This study confirms previous findings regarding relationships and also reveals new, unexpected relationships.

“Species called flycatchers are placed on many different branches in the family tree and therefore belong to groups that are not closely related. In terms of Swedish flycatchers, the pied, collared and robin flycatcher are closely related, while the spotted flycatcher is a more distant relative.”

Uppsala University has a long tradition of flycatcher research, especially Pied and Collared Flycatchers. The current study supports the hypothesis that the bluethroat, popularly referred to as “the nightingale of the Swedish mountains”, has its closest relative in the Himalayas and the mountains of China.

“I continue to be amazed at the many unexpected connections that emerge from DNA analyses,” says Per Alström

Zhao, M., Burleigh, JG, Olsson, U., Alström, P. & Kimball, RT 2022. A nearly complete and time-calibrated phylogeny of the Old World flycatchers, robins, and chats (Aves, Muscicapidae). Molecular phylogenetics and evolution in the press (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2022.107646)


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