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Curr Biol. 2008 Dec 23;18(24):1927-31. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.10.051. Epub 2008 Dec 11.

Convergent evolution of Hawaiian and Australo-Pacific honeyeaters from distant songbird ancestors.

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Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20008, USA.


The Hawaiian "honeyeaters," five endemic species of recently extinct, nectar-feeding songbirds in the genera Moho and Chaetoptila, looked and acted like Australasian honeyeaters (Meliphagidae), and no taxonomist since their discovery on James Cook's third voyage has classified them as anything else. We obtained DNA sequences from museum specimens of Moho and Chaetoptila collected in Hawaii 115-158 years ago. Phylogenetic analysis of these sequences supports monophyly of the two Hawaiian genera but, surprisingly, reveals that neither taxon is a meliphagid honeyeater, nor even in the same part of the songbird radiation as meliphagids. Instead, the Hawaiian species are divergent members of a passeridan group that includes deceptively dissimilar families of songbirds (Holarctic waxwings, neotropical silky flycatchers, and palm chats). Here we designate them as a new family, the Mohoidae. A nuclear-DNA rate calibration suggests that mohoids diverged from their closest living ancestor 14-17 mya, coincident with the estimated earliest arrival in Hawaii of a bird-pollinated plant lineage. Convergent evolution, the evolution of similar traits in distantly related taxa because of common selective pressures, is illustrated well by nectar-feeding birds, but the morphological, behavioral, and ecological similarity of the mohoids to the Australasian honeyeaters makes them a particularly striking example of the phenomenon.

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