Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Dating the diversification of the major lineages of Passeriformes (Aves)

Per GP Ericson1*, Seraina Klopfstein2, Martin Irestedt2, Jacqueline MT Nguyen3 and Johan AA Nylander24

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Zoology, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Box 50007, SE–10405 Stockholm, Sweden

2 Department of Biodiversity and Genetics, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Box 50007, SE–10405 Stockholm, Sweden

3 School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney NSW 2052, Australia

4 BILS – Bioinformatics Infrastructure for Life Sciences, University of Linköping, SE–58183 Linköping, Sweden

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:8  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-8

Published: 15 January 2014



The avian Order Passeriformes is an enormously species-rich group, which comprises almost 60% of all living bird species. This diverse order is believed to have originated before the break-up of Gondwana in the late Cretaceous. However, previous molecular dating studies have relied heavily on the geological split between New Zealand and Antarctica, assumed to have occurred 85–82 Mya, for calibrating the molecular clock and might thus be circular in their argument.


This study provides a time-scale for the evolution of the major clades of passerines using seven nuclear markers, five taxonomically well-determined passerine fossils, and an updated interpretation of the New Zealand split from Antarctica 85–52 Mya in a Bayesian relaxed-clock approach. We also assess how different interpretations of the New Zealand–Antarctica vicariance event influence our age estimates. Our results suggest that the diversification of Passeriformes began in the late Cretaceous or early Cenozoic. Removing the root calibration for the New Zealand–Antarctica vicariance event (85–52 Mya) dramatically increases the 95% credibility intervals and leads to unrealistically old age estimates. We assess the individual characteristics of the seven nuclear genes analyzed in our study. Our analyses provide estimates of divergence times for the major groups of passerines, which can be used as secondary calibration points in future molecular studies.


Our analysis takes recent paleontological and geological findings into account and provides the best estimate of the passerine evolutionary time-scale currently available. This time-scale provides a temporal framework for further biogeographical, ecological, and co-evolutionary studies of the largest bird radiation, and adds to the growing support for a Cretaceous origin of Passeriformes.

Passeriformes; Molecular dating; Fossil calibrations; New Zealand–Antarctica vicariance