Best Clade Ever? The New World nine-primaried songbirds.

They’re ~811 species of songbirds that share a common ancestor. They’re small to medium-sized, handsome to gaudy, fast-moving, abundant to rare, temperate to tropical, highly migratory to completely sedentary. From the North Slope of Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, the New World avifauna wouldn’t be the same without them. They are the New World nine-primaried oscines (also known as superfamily Emberizoidea), and they included the warblers, blackbirds, sparrows, cardinals, tanagers, and a grab-bag of less notable groups.

A recent phylogenetic study by Keith Barker, and with collaborators John Klicka, Irby Lovette, Kevin Burns, and Scott Lanyon, has provided a near complete, time-calibrated species-level phylogeny of this group (Barker et al. 2013, Barker et al. 2015). This has finally given us a firm basis for a revision of the family and genus-level classification of this group. Inspired by the species-level phylogeny and proposed new phylogenetic classification of this major group, our journal-club group at UNM set out to [re-]learn the families and their characteristics. We teamed up to build an informal Powerpoint ‘guide’ to the families and genera, including the basics of their diversity and distribution. We included images of nearly all of the 201 genera, in 90 slides. We share it with you here on Slideshare.

Images from allaboutbirds blogpost on gaudiest tanagers, clockwise from upper left: Golden-hooded Tanager by Raúl Vega, Opal-rumped Tanager by Joao Quental, Paradise Tanager by Joao Quental, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager by Bryan Hix, Grass-green Tanager by chris.w.birder, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager by Ian Billenness, via Neotropical Birds.

One of the coolest things resulting from the Barker et al. studies was a robust description of the history of dispersal between North and South America with the group, summarized in Figure 2 from Barker et al. (2015):

barker et al 15-fig-backbonejpg

The figure shows how the North American ancestor of the nine-primaried oscines colonized South America several times as it diversified, starting way before the closure of the Isthmus of Panama. Overall, there are a surprisingly small number of dispersal events between the continents, and huge variation in diversity and distributional extent among subclades. Most interestingly, it appears that a common ancestor of tanagers and cardinals lived in South America ~13 million years ago. Other groups of nine-primaried oscines that made it to South America (blackbirds, warblers, sparrows) are recent arrivals in comparison.

These papers are a joy to peruse. They allow an ornithologist or birder to organize their existing knowledge of bird traits and distributions according to evolutionary descent. A couple of things that jump out as truly surprising are the deep phylogenetic distinctness of several Caribbean lineages and the extensive inter-continental dispersal that occurred before the closure of the Isthmus of Panama, in both directions. Sometimes the purest and most elegant scientific advances come from improving our description of diversity in the form of a robust, informative phylogeny — we now have that for the nine-primaried oscines songbirds.

Literature cited:

Barker, F. K., K. J. Burns, J. Klicka, S. M. Lanyon, and I. J. Lovette. 2013. Going to extremes: Contrasting rates of diversification in a recent radiation of New World passerine birds. Systematic Biology 62:298-320.

Barker, F. K., K. J. Burns, J. Klicka, S. M. Lanyon, and I. J. Lovette. 2015. New insights into New World biogeography: An integrated view from the phylogeny of blackbirds, cardinals, sparrows, tanagers, warblers, and allies. The Auk: 132(2):333-348.


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