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Biol Lett. 2008 Feb 23;4(1):71-4.

Polyphyletic origin of toxic Pitohui birds suggests widespread occurrence of toxicity in corvoid birds.

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Vertebrate Department, Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 15, 2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark.


Pitohui birds from New Guinea have been found to contain a toxin otherwise only found in neotropical poison arrow frogs. Pitohuis have been considered to be monophyletic and thus toxicity is thought to have evolved once in birds. Here, we show that Pitohuis, rather than being a tight-knit group, are polyphyletic and represent several lineages among the corvoid families of passerine birds. This finding demonstrates that the ability to be toxic is widespread among corvoid birds and suggests that additional members of this radiation, comprising more than 700 species, could prove to be toxic. It is postulated that toxic birds ingest the toxin through their insect diet and excrete it through the uropygial gland, from where it is applied to the skin and feathers. Thus, the ability to become toxic is most likely an ancestral condition but variation in diet determines the extent to which toxicity is expressed among corvoid birds. Variability in toxicity levels further suggests that the main function of the toxin is that of a deterrent against ectoparasites and bacterial infection rather than being a defence against predators as initially proposed.

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