THE extent to which some passerines can change their appearance to suit their environments and habitats has been revealed in a dramatic way by the DNA analysis of two geographically widely separated island endemics.
The species – Madanga Madanga ruficollis of Buru (Wallacea), Indonesia, and São Tomé Shorttail, Amaurocichla bocagii, from São Tomé, Gulf of Guinea – will now both have to be reclassified as pipits and wagtails, despite formerly being thought of as a white-eye and Old World warbler respectively.
Using already mostly pre-existing DNA sequences, a mainly Scandinavian team analysed the two unusual species along with pipits and wagtails and representatives of most other songbird lineages. São Tomé Shorttail came out as a highly derived form closest to Cape Wagtail Motacilla capensis, while Madanga was a sister species to the Alpine Pipit Anthus gutturalis of Papua New Guinea. These widely disparate species show that there may be many more surprises in store among the passerines as molecular analysis progresses.
• Alström, P, Jønsson, K A, Fjeldså, J, Ödeen, A, Ericson, P G P, and Irestedt, M. 2015. Dramatic niche shifts and morphological change in two insular bird species. Royal Society Open Science 2: 140364. dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.140364.