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Mol Biol Evol. 2007 Jan;24(1):269-80. Epub 2006 Oct 24.

Mitochondrial genomes and avian phylogeny: complex characters and resolvability without explosive radiations.

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  • 1Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand.


We improve the taxon sampling for avian phylogeny by analyzing 7 new mitochondrial genomes (a toucan, woodpecker, osprey, forest falcon, American kestrel, heron, and a pelican). This improves inference of the avian tree, and it supports 3 major conclusions. The first is that some birds (including a parrot, a toucan, and an osprey) exhibit a complete duplication of the control region (CR) meaning that there are at least 4 distinct gene orders within birds. However, it appears that there are regions of continued gene conversion between the duplicate CRs, resulting in duplications that can be stable for long evolutionary periods. Because of this stable duplicated state, gene order can eventually either revert to the original order or change to the new gene order. The existence of this stable duplicate state explains how an apparently unlikely event (finding the same novel gene order) can arise multiple times. Although rare genomic changes have theoretical advantages for tree reconstruction, they can be compromised if these apparently rare events have a stable intermediate state. Secondly, the toucan and woodpecker improve the resolution of the 6-way split within Neoaves that has been called an "explosive radiation." An explosive radiation implies that normal microevolutionary events are insufficient to explain the observed macroevolution. By showing the avian tree is, in principle, resolvable, we demonstrate that the radiation of birds is amenable to standard evolutionary analysis. Thirdly, and as expected from theory, additional taxa breaking up long branches stabilize the position of some problematic taxa (like the falcon). In addition, we report that within the birds of prey and allies, we did not find evidence pairing New World vultures with storks or accipitrids (hawks, eagles, and osprey) with Falconids.

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