Charted pedigree of Old World flycatchers

Charted pedigree of Old World flycatchers

The European robin is more closely related to the Afrotropical white-browed robin than to the East Asian Japanese robin, despite the close similarity in appearance between the European and Japanese robins and the vastly different plumage of the European robin and the white-browed robin, Robin Chat. The resemblance between the two robins is an example of convergent evolution, meaning that species can independently evolve similar appearances, for example due to similar lifestyles. The thrush nightingale and the bluethroat are close relatives and also more closely related to the Japanese robin than to the European robin. However, the bluethroat’s closest relative is found in the Himalayas and Chinese mountains. Photo credits: Tomas Carlberg, Hans Bister and Craig Brelsford/

The robin’s closest relatives are found in tropical Africa. The European robin is therefore not closely related to the Japanese robin, despite their close resemblance in appearance. This is confirmed by a new study of the Old World flycatcher family, to which these birds belong. The study includes 92 percent of the more than 300 species in this family.

“The fact that the European and Japanese robins look so similar despite not being closely related is one of many examples of so-called convergent evolution in this group of birds. For example, similarities in appearance among distant relatives can arise from similarities in lifestyle,” says Uppsala University’s Per Alström, one of the researchers behind the study published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

The Old World flycatcher family includes birds belonging to more than 300 species distributed in Europe, Asia and Africa. The family includes not only flycatchers, but also nightingales, gossips, wheatears, redstarts, whistling thrushes, forktails and other exotic groups. Twelve species breed in Sweden, the best known of which are the robin, the pied flycatcher and the thrush nightingale. All but three of these species overwinter in sub-Saharan Africa or southern Asia.

Researchers from Uppsala University, the University of Gothenburg and the University of Florida have used DNA to reconstruct the pedigree of 92 percent of species in the Old World flycatcher family. This study confirms previous findings about relationships and reveals new, unexpected relationships.

“Species referred to as flycatchers are found on many different branches of the family tree and therefore belong to groups that are not closely related. Regarding the Swedish flycatchers, the pied flycatcher, the collared flycatcher and the red-breasted flycatcher are closely related, while the spotted flycatcher is a more distant relative.”

Uppsala University has a long tradition of research on flycatchers, particularly pied flycatchers and collared flycatchers. The present study supports the hypothesis that the bluethroat, colloquially called “the nightingale of the Swedish mountains”, has its closest relatives in the Himalayas and in the mountains of China.

“I’m always surprised by the many unexpected connections that DNA analyzes uncover,” says Per Alström.

More information:
Min Zhao et al, A near-complete and time-calibrated phylogeny of flycatchers, robins, and Old World chats (Aves, Muscicapidae), Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.ympev.2022.107646

Provided by Uppsala University

Citation: Family tree of Old World flycatchers mapped (2022, November 23), retrieved November 23, 2022 from

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