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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A multi-locus inference of the evolutionary diversification of extant flamingos (Phoenicopteridae)

Chris R Torres1, Lisa M Ogawa1, Mark AF Gillingham234, Brittney Ferrari1 and Marcel van Tuinen1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology and Marine Biology, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, North Carolina, USA

2 Université de Bourgogne, Equipe Ecologie Evolutive, UMR CNRS 6282 Biogéosciences, 6 bd. Gabriel, Dijon 21000, France

3 Centre de Recherche de la Tour du Valat, Le Sambuc, Arles 13200, France

4 Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Department of Evolutionary Genetics, Alfred-Kowalke-Str. 17, Berlin D-10315, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:36  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-36

Published: 1 March 2014



Modern flamingos (Phoenicopteridae) occupy a highly specialized ecology unique among birds and represent a potentially powerful model system for informing the mechanisms by which a lineage of birds adapts and radiates. However, despite a rich fossil record and well-studied feeding morphology, molecular investigations of the evolutionary progression among modern flamingos have been limited. Here, using three mitochondrial (mtDNA) markers, we present the first DNA sequence-based study of population genetic variation in the widely distributed Chilean Flamingo and, using two mtDNA and 10 nuclear (nDNA) markers, recover the species tree and divergence time estimates for the six extant species of flamingos. Phylogenetic analyses include likelihood and Bayesian frameworks and account for potential gene tree discordance. Analyses of divergence times are fossil calibrated at the divergence of Mirandornithes (flamingos + grebes) and the divergence of crown grebes.


mtDNA sequences confirmed the presence of a single metapopulation represented by two minimally varying mtDNA barcodes in Chilean flamingos. Likelihood and Bayesian methods recovered identical phylogenies with flamingos falling into shallow-keeled (comprising the Greater, American and Chilean Flamingos) and deep-keeled (comprising the Lesser, Andean and James’s Flamingos) sub-clades. The initial divergence among flamingos occurred at or shortly after the Mio-Pliocene boundary (6–3 Ma) followed by quick consecutive divergences throughout the Plio-Pleistocene. There is significant incongruence between the ages recovered by the mtDNA and nDNA datasets, likely due to mutational saturation occurring in the mtDNA loci.


The finding of a single metapopulation in the widespread Chilean Flamingo confirms similar findings in other widespread flamingo species. The robust species phylogeny is congruent with previous classifications of flamingos based on feeding morphology. Modern phoenicopterids likely originated in the New World with each sub-clade dispersing across the Atlantic at least once. Our divergence time estimates place flamingos among the youngest families of birds, counter to the classical notion of flamingos as among the oldest based on biogeography and the fossil record. Finally, we designate ‘Phoeniconaias’ as a junior synonym of ‘Phoenicoparrus’ and redefine the latter genus as containing all flamingos more closely related to Phoenicoparrus andinus than Phoenicopterus roseus.

Flamingo; Phylogeny; Divergence time; Biogeography; Fossil; Bill; Filter feeding