Nav: Home

New research shows how songbirds island-hopped out of Australia

August 30, 2016

LAWRENCE -- While it is widely accepted that songbirds originated from the Australian continent, how and when they diversified and colonized the rest of the globe has remained a mystery.

Researchers from the University of Kansas, Louisiana State University and three other institutions reconstructed the evolutionary history of songbirds using thousands of DNA sequences from majority songbird lineages and information from the fossil record to provide answers to these questions. They found that songbirds began diversifying about 33 million years ago and underwent extensive diversification in Australia. Furthermore, the researchers also found that songbirds first dispersed out of Australia about 23 million years ago through early islands in the Indonesian archipelago into Asia and subsequently the entire globe.

This new research will be published in Nature Communications on Aug. 30.

"One of the challenges with deciphering songbird evolutionary history is that they diversified so rapidly that previous studies had a difficult time estimating the branching pattern of the songbird family tree," said lead author Rob Moyle, KU professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and curator of ornithology at the KU Biodiversity Institute. "With advances in DNA sequencing technology, we were able to collect an unprecedented amount of DNA sequence data that helped clarify songbird relationships."

Songbirds comprise the largest group of birds, with about 5,000 species, accounting for nearly half of avian diversity. They are found on almost all corners of the globe, with the exception of Antarctica, and include the familiar crows and sparrows, as well as elaborate singers like mockingbirds and lyrebirds.

With a better understanding of the songbird family tree, Moyle and his colleagues were able to infer the colonization history undertaken by songbird ancestors.

The dispersal of songbirds from Australia through Indonesia, Moyle said, seems like an obvious explanation to anyone who knows world geography; but one has to bear in mind that tens of millions of years ago, world geography looked a lot different because of the Earth's constant process of plate tectonic movements.   "Thirty-three million years ago, Australia was thousands of kilometers away from any continent, and New Guinea barely existed," Moyle said.

Another issue confounding our understanding of songbird evolution is the estimated age of the group, said co-lead author Carl Oliveros, a postdoctoral researcher at Louisiana State University.

"Our estimate for the age of songbirds is about half of most previous estimates, placing songbird evolution in a very different geological landscape than previously thought," said Oliveros, who earned his doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at KU. "Thus the previous hypothesis of long-distance dispersal by songbirds from Australia to Africa via Indian Ocean landmasses are put into question because these Indian Ocean islands were submerged by the time we think songbirds diversified."

Oliveros' and his colleagues' work also provides an alternative explanation to the high diversity of songbirds that are presently found only in New Guinea. Previous research suggested that songbirds diversified extensively in proto-islands of New Guinea before colonizing adjacent areas.

However, Oliveros and his colleagues believe that songbirds underwent extensive diversification in Australia and subsequently colonized New Guinea after the formation of the New Guinea landmass. They suggest that the aridification of Australia caused the extinction of forest-adapted songbird lineages in the continent, which left relicts of the first colonizers as sole surviving lineages in New Guinea. According to the researchers, this idea is supported by the presence of fossils in Australia of plants and mammals that are currently only found in New Guinea.

The study used tissue samples of birds deposited at the KU Biodiversity Institute collected from expeditions to 25 countries within the past 25 years. This research is supported by funds from the National Science Foundation, KU and Louisiana State. 
-end-


University of Kansas

Related Songbirds Articles:

Male songbirds can't survive on good looks alone, says a new study
Brightly colored male songbirds not only have to attract the female's eye, but also make sure their sperm can last the distance, according to new research.
Understanding why songbirds choose their homes
New research by University of Alberta biologists uses a new approach to modelling the populations of six species of songbirds in Canada's boreal forest -- and the results show that standard modeling methods may not be accurately capturing species distribution patterns.
Daddy daycare: Why some songbirds care for the wrong kids
Interspecific feeding -- when an adult of one species feeds the young of another -- is rare among songbirds, and scientists could only speculate on why it occurs, but now, Penn State researchers have new insight into this behavior.
Neonicotinoid insecticides cause rapid weight loss and travel delays in migrating songbirds
Songbirds exposed to imidacloprid, a widely used neonicotinoid insecticide, exhibit anorexic behavior, reduced body weight and delays in their migratory itinerary, according to a new study.
International scientists shed new light on demise of two extinct New Zealand songbirds
They may not have been seen for the past 50 and 110 years, but an international study into their extinction has provided answers to how the world lost New Zealand's South Island kokako and huia.
Scent brings all the songbirds to the yard
Lehigh University scientists found that not only can chickadees smell, but the males and females prefer the smell of their own species over the smell of the opposite species.
Scientists identify brain region that enables young songbirds to change their tune
In a scientific first, Columbia scientists have demonstrated how the brains of young songbirds become tuned to the songs they learn while growing up.
The case of the poisoned songbirds
Researchers from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's Wildlife Investigations Laboratory present their results from a toxicological investigation into a mortality event involving songbirds in a new publication in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.
Baby tiger sharks eat songbirds
Tiger sharks have a reputation for being the 'garbage cans of the sea' -- they'll eat just about anything, from dolphins and sea turtles to rubber tires.
Plump songbirds more likely to survive migration over Gulf of Mexico
A kilometer above Fort Morgan, Alabama, small migratory birds face a critical decision.
More Songbirds News and Songbirds Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.