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Open Access Research article

Palaeoclimatic events, dispersal and migratory losses along the Afro-European axis as drivers of biogeographic distribution in Sylvia warblers

Gary Voelker* and Jessica E Light

Author affiliations

Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences and Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collections, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843, USA

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:163  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-163

Published: 14 June 2011



The Old World warbler genus Sylvia has been used extensively as a model system in a variety of ecological, genetic, and morphological studies. The genus is comprised of about 25 species, and 70% of these species have distributions at or near the Mediterranean Sea. This distribution pattern suggests a possible role for the Messinian Salinity Crisis (from 5.96-5.33 Ma) as a driving force in lineage diversification. Other species distributions suggest that Late Miocene to Pliocene Afro-tropical forest dynamics have also been important in the evolution of Sylvia lineages. Using a molecular phylogenetic hypothesis and other methods, we seek to develop a biogeographic hypothesis for Sylvia and to explicitly assess the roles of these climate-driven events.


We present the first strongly supported molecular phylogeny for Sylvia. With one exception, species fall into one of three strongly supported clades: one small clade of species distributed mainly in Africa and Europe, one large clade of species distributed mainly in Africa and Asia, and another large clade with primarily a circum-Mediterranean distribution. Asia is reconstructed as the ancestral area for Sylvia. Long-distance migration is reconstructed as the ancestral character state for the genus, and sedentary behavior subsequently evolved seven times.


Molecular clock calibration suggests that Sylvia arose in the early Miocene and diverged into three main clades by 12.6 Ma. Divergence estimates indicate that the Messinian Salinity Crisis had a minor impact on Sylvia. Instead, over-water dispersals, repeated loss of long-distance migration, and palaeo-climatic events in Africa played primary roles in Sylvia divergence and distribution.