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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Non-monophyly and intricate morphological evolution within the avian family Cettiidae revealed by multilocus analysis of a taxonomically densely sampled dataset

Per Alström1*, Sebastian Höhna2, Magnus Gelang3, Per GP Ericson3 and Urban Olsson4

Author affiliations

1 Swedish Species Information Centre, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Box 7007, SE-750 07 Uppsala, Sweden

2 Department of Mathematics, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

3 Department of Vertebrate Zoology, and Molecular Systematics Laboratory, Swedish Museum of Natural History, P.O. Box 50007, SE-104 05 Stockholm, Sweden

4 Department of Zoology, University of Gothenburg, Box 463, SE-405 30 Göteborg, Sweden

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:352  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-352

Published: 5 December 2011

Abstract

Background

The avian family Cettiidae, including the genera Cettia, Urosphena, Tesia, Abroscopus and Tickellia and Orthotomus cucullatus, has recently been proposed based on analysis of a small number of loci and species. The close relationship of most of these taxa was unexpected, and called for a comprehensive study based on multiple loci and dense taxon sampling. In the present study, we infer the relationships of all except one of the species in this family using one mitochondrial and three nuclear loci. We use traditional gene tree methods (Bayesian inference, maximum likelihood bootstrapping, parsimony bootstrapping), as well as a recently developed Bayesian species tree approach (*BEAST) that accounts for lineage sorting processes that might produce discordance between gene trees. We also analyse mitochondrial DNA for a larger sample, comprising multiple individuals and a large number of subspecies of polytypic species.

Results

There are many topological incongruences among the single-locus trees, although none of these is strongly supported. The multi-locus tree inferred using concatenated sequences and the species tree agree well with each other, and are overall well resolved and well supported by the data. The main discrepancy between these trees concerns the most basal split. Both methods infer the genus Cettia to be highly non-monophyletic, as it is scattered across the entire family tree. Deep intraspecific divergences are revealed, and one or two species and one subspecies are inferred to be non-monophyletic (differences between methods).

Conclusions

The molecular phylogeny presented here is strongly inconsistent with the traditional, morphology-based classification. The remarkably high degree of non-monophyly in the genus Cettia is likely to be one of the most extraordinary examples of misconceived relationships in an avian genus. The phylogeny suggests instances of parallel evolution, as well as highly unequal rates of morphological divergence in different lineages. This complex morphological evolution apparently misled earlier taxonomists. These results underscore the well-known but still often neglected problem of basing classifications on overall morphological similarity. Based on the molecular data, a revised taxonomy is proposed. Although the traditional and species tree methods inferred much the same tree in the present study, the assumption by species tree methods that all species are monophyletic is a limitation in these methods, as some currently recognized species might have more complex histories.