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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The mysterious Spotted Green Pigeon and its relation to the Dodo and its kindred

Tim H Heupink1*, Hein van Grouw2 and David M Lambert1

Author Affiliations

1 Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University, Nathan, Australia

2 Natural History Museum, Tring, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:136  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-136

Published: 16 July 2014

Abstract

Background

The closely related and extinct Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) and Rodrigues Solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria), both in the subfamily Raphinae, are members of a clade of morphologically very diverse pigeons. Genetic analyses have revealed that the Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) is the closest living relative of these birds, thereby highlighting their ancestors’ remarkable migration and morphological evolution. The Spotted Green Pigeon (Caloenas maculata) was described in 1783 and showed some similarities to the Nicobar Pigeon. Soon however the taxon fell into obscurity, as it was regarded as simply an abnormal form of the Nicobar Pigeon. The relationship between both taxa has occasionally been questioned, leading some ornithologists to suggest that the two may in fact be different taxa. Today only one of the original two specimens survives and nothing is known about the origin of the taxon. Due to its potential close relationship, the Spotted Green Pigeon may hold clues to the historical migration, isolation and morphological evolution of the Dodo and its kindred.

Results

We use ancient DNA methodologies to investigate the phylogeny and authenticity of the Spotted Green Pigeon. A novel extraction method with the ability to retain and purify heavily fragmented DNA is used to investigate two feathers from the sole surviving specimen. Maximum Likelihood phylogenetic analyses reveal that the Spotted Green Pigeon is a unique lineage and together with the Nicobar Pigeon, is basal to the Dodo and Rodrigues Solitaire.

Conclusions

The distance observed for the Spotted Green Pigeon and Nicobar Pigeon is larger than that observed within other Pigeon species, indicating that the Spotted Green pigeon is a unique taxon, thereby also indicating it is a genuine addition to the list of extinct species. The phylogenetic placement of the Spotted Green Pigeon indicates that the ancestors of both Caloenas and therefore Raphinae displayed and shared the following traits: ability of flight, semi-terrestrial habits and an affinity towards islands. This set of traits supports the stepping stone hypothesis, which states that the Raphinae got to their respective localities by island hopping from India or Southeast Asia.

Keywords:
Spotted Green Pigeon; Caloenas maculata; Dodo; Raphus cucullatus; Extinct; Museum specimen; DNA extraction; Ancient DNA; Mini-barcode; Phylogeny