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Current Biology: Researchers trace evolution of diversity in Hawaiian Honeycreepers

Posted on 21 October 2011

An international team of scientists has determined the evolutionary family tree for one of the most strikingly diverse and endangered bird families in the world, the Hawaiian honeycreepers.

Illustrated is a juvenile Laysan finch (centre), and clockwise from the top: Hawaii akepa, Maui parrotbill, poouli, iiwi, Maui alauahio, and akiapolaau. Artwork © H. Douglas Pratt.

Using one of the largest DNA datasets for a group of birds and employing next-generation sequencing methods, the team which included Professor Michi Hofreiter, of the University of York, determined the types of finches from which the honeycreeper family originally evolved, and linked the timing of that rapid evolution to the formation of the four main Hawaiian Islands.

The research, which will be published in the latest edition of Current Biology on 8 November, also involved scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and Earlham College in the USA and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

There were once more than 50 species of these colourful songbirds that were so diverse that historically it was unclear that they were all part of the same group.

Professor Hofreiter, of the Department of Biology at the University of York, said: “Honeycreepers probably represent the most impressive example of an adaptive radiation in vertebrates that has led to a number of beak shapes unique among birds. In our study we are, for the first time, able to resolve the relationships of the species within this group and thereby understand their evolution."

For more detail see full story at the University of York website