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Proc Biol Sci. 2002 Jan 7;269(1486):37-42.

Clade-specific morphological diversification and adaptive radiation in Hawaiian songbirds.

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Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University, 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA.


The Hawaiian honeycreepers are a dramatic example of adaptive radiation but contrast with the four other songbird lineages that successfully colonized the Hawaiian archipelago and failed to undergo similar diversification. To explore the processes that produced the diversity dichotomy in this insular fauna, we compared clade age and morphological diversity between the speciose honeycreepers and the comparatively depauperate Hawaiian thrushes. Mitochondrial-DNA-based genetic distances between these Hawaiian clades and their continental sister taxa indicate that the ancestral thrush colonized the Hawaiian Islands as early as the common ancestor of the honeycreepers. This similar timing of colonization indicates that the marked difference in diversity between the Hawaiian honeycreeper and thrush clades is unlikely to result from differences in these clades' tenures within the archipelago. If time cannot explain the contrasting diversities of these taxa, then an intrinsic, clade-specific trait may have fostered the honeycreeper radiation. As the honeycreepers have diversified most dramatically in morphological characters related to resource utilization, we used principal components analyses of bill characters to compare the magnitudes of morphological variation in the ancestral clades from which the Hawaiian honeycreeper and thrush lineages are derived, the Carduelini and Turdinae respectively. Although the Carduelini share a more recent common ancestor and have a lower species diversity than the Turdinae, these finch-like relatives of the honeycreepers exhibit significantly greater variation in bill morphology than do the continental relatives of the Hawaiian thrushes. The higher magnitude of morphological variation in the non-Hawaiian Carduelini suggests that the honeycreepers fall within a clade exhibiting a generally high evolutionary flexibility in bill morphology. Accordingly, although the magnitude of bill variation among the honeycreepers is similar to that of the entire passerine radiation, this dramatic morphological radiation represents an extreme manifestation of a general clade-specific ability to evolve novel morphologies.

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