Saturday, February 4, 2023

Ornithologists Unveil Family Tree of Old World Flycatchers, Robins and Chats

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Muscicapidae — the chats, robins and Old World flycatchers — is a diverse songbird family with over 300 species.

This phylogenetic tree includes 301 species (ca. 92% species) from all currently recognized genera of the family Muscicapidae. Image credit: Zhao et al., doi: 10.1016/j.ympev.2022.107646.

Muscicapidae is one of the largest bird families in the world, with four subfamilies (Muscicapinae, Niltavinae, Cossyphinae, and Saxicolinae), up to 57 different genera, and up to 343 scientifically recognized species.

These birds are widely distributed in various habitats across the entire Old World and adjacent Australasia and Nearctic.

They show great diversity in morphology, behaviors, vocalizations, and life history, which makes Muscicapidae a great study group to address various questions on evolution, diversity and biogeography.

However, for very similar reasons, it also makes resolving the phylogeny for this species-rich family challenging.

The Muscicapidae family includes not only flycatchers, but also nightingales, chats, wheatears, redstarts, whistling-thrushes, forktails and other exotic groups,” said Uppsala University researcher Per Alström and colleagues.

“Twelve species breed in Sweden, of which the European robin, the pied flycatcher and the thrush nightingale are the most well-known.”

“All except three of these species winter in sub-Saharan Africa or southern Asia.”

“The fact that the European and Japanese robins are so similar-looking despite not being closely related is one of many examples of so-called convergent evolution in this group of birds,” they added.

“Similarities in appearance can evolve in distant relatives, e.g., as a result of similarities in lifestyle.”

To reconstruct the Muscicapidae family tree, the authors assembled genetic data for 301 member species, covering all genera targeted and 92% of recognized species.

Their results confirm previous findings regarding relationships as well as revealing new, unexpected relationship.

The findings suggest that Muscicapidae diverged from the family Turdidae (thrushes and allies) in the Early Miocene epoch, and the most recent common ancestors for the four subfamilies (Muscicapinae, Niltavinae, Cossyphinae, and Saxicolinae) all arose around the middle Miocene.

“Species that are named flycatchers are placed on many different branches in the family tree, and hence belong to groups that are not closely related,” the researchers said.

“With respect to the Swedish flycatchers, the pied, collared and red-breasted flycatchers are closely related to each other, while the spotted flycatcher is a more distant relative.”

“Our study supports the hypothesis that the bluethroat, which is colloquially called the ‘nightingale of the Swedish mountains,’ has its closest relative in the Himalayas and the mountains of China.”

“I never cease to be surprised by the many unexpected relationships that are revealed by DNA analyses.”

The study was published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.


Min Zhao et al. 2023. A near-complete and time-calibrated phylogeny of the Old World flycatchers, robins and chats (Aves, Muscicapidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 178: 107646; doi: 10.1016/j.ympev.2022.107646

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