Mapping the Old World flycatcher family tree

Mapping the Old World flycatcher family tree

image: The European Robin is more closely related to the Afrotropical White-browed Thrush than to the East Asian Japanese Robin, despite the great similarity in appearance between European and Japanese Robins and plumages strongly different from the European Robin and the White Robin-Browed Cat. The similarity between the two robins is an example of convergent evolution, which means that the species can independently develop similar appearances, for example due to similar lifestyles. The Nightingale Thrush and 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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Credit: Tomas Carlberg, Hans Bister and Craig Brelsford/shanghaibirding.com.

The closest relatives of the European robin 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 includes 92 percent of the more than 300 species in this family.

“The fact that 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 may evolve in distant relatives, for example due to similarities in lifestyle,” says Per Alström of Uppsala University, who is one of the researchers behind the study published in Molecular phylogenetics and evolution.

The Old World flycatcher family includes birds of more than 300 species distributed across Europe, Asia, and Africa. The family includes not only flycatchers, but also nightingales, cats, wheatears, redstarts, whistling thrushes, forktails, and other exotic groups. Twelve species breed in Sweden, of which the European Robin, Pied Flycatcher and Nightingale Thrush are the best known. All but three of these species winter in sub-Saharan Africa or southern Asia.

Researchers from Uppsala University, the University of Gothenburg and the University of Florida have used DNA to piece together the family tree of 92% of species in the Old World flycatcher family. This study confirms previous findings about relationships and reveals unexpected new relationships.

“Species called flycatchers are placed on many different branches of the family tree and therefore belong to groups that are not closely related. As far as Swedish flycatchers are concerned, the pied, collared and red-breasted flycatchers are closely related to each other, while the spotted flycatcher is a more distant relative.

Uppsala University has a long tradition of research on flycatchers, particularly the Pied and Collared Flycatchers. The present study supports the hypothesis that the bluethroat, which is colloquially called “the Swedish mountain nightingale”, has its closest relative in the Himalayas and the mountains of China.

“I keep being surprised by the many unexpected relationships revealed by DNA analysis,” says Per Alström

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


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