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Mol Phylogenet Evol. 2005 May;35(2):459-69. Epub 2005 Jan 25.

A phylogenetic framework for the terns (Sternini) inferred from mtDNA sequences: implications for taxonomy and plumage evolution.

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  • 1Department of Biology, University of Memphis, 3700 Walker Ave., Ellington Hall 103, Memphis, TN 38152, USA. ebridge@memphis.edu

Abstract

We sequenced 2800 bp of mitochondrial DNA from each of 33 species and 2 subspecies (35 taxa) of terns (Sternini), and employed Bayesian methods to derive a phylogeny with good branch support based on posterior probabilities. The resulting tree confirmed many of the generally accepted taxonomic groups, and led us to suggest a revision of the terns that recognizes 12 genera, 11 of which correspond to a distinct clade on the tree or a highly divergent species (1 genus was not represented in the phylogeny). As an example of how the molecular phylogeny reflects similarities in morphology and behavior among the terns, we used the phylogeny to examine the evolution of the breeding (alternate) head plumage patterns among the terns to test the hypothesis that this character is phylogenetically informative. The three basic types of head plumage (white crown, black cap, and black cap with a white blaze on the forehead) were highly conserved within clades, with notable exceptions in two white-crowned species that evolved independently among the black-capped terns. Based on the appearance of the close relatives of these exceptional species, their white crowns appear to be due to the retention of either winter (basic) plumage characteristics or perhaps juvenile characteristics when the birds molt into their breeding plumage. Examination of the evolutionary history of head plumage indicated that the white-crowned species such as the noddies (Anous) and the white tern (Gygis alba) are probably most representative of ancestral terns.

PMID:
15804415
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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