Open Access Research article

Genetic structure along an elevational gradient in Hawaiian honeycreepers reveals contrasting evolutionary responses to avian malaria

Lori S Eggert12*, Lauren A Terwilliger1, Bethany L Woodworth34, Patrick J Hart35, Danielle Palmer1 and Robert C Fleischer1

Author Affiliations

1 Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics, National Zoological Park and National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, 3001 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20008 USA

2 Biological Sciences, University of Missouri, 226 Tucker Hall, Columbia, MO 65211 USA

3 Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center, US Geological Survey, Kilauea Field Station, PO Box 44, Hawaii National Park, HI 96718 USA

4 25 Ocean View Ave., South Portland, ME 04106 USA

5 Department of Biology, University of Hawaii, Hilo, HI 96720 USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:315  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-315

Published: 14 November 2008



The Hawaiian honeycreepers (Drepanidinae) are one of the best-known examples of an adaptive radiation, but their persistence today is threatened by the introduction of exotic pathogens and their vector, the mosquito Culex quinquefasciatus. Historically, species such as the amakihi (Hemignathus virens), the apapane (Himatione sanguinea), and the iiwi (Vestiaria coccinea) were found from the coastal lowlands to the high elevation forests, but by the late 1800's they had become extremely rare in habitats below 900 m. Recently, however, populations of amakihi and apapane have been observed in low elevation habitats. We used twelve polymorphic microsatellite loci to investigate patterns of genetic structure, and to infer responses of these species to introduced avian malaria along an elevational gradient on the eastern flanks of Mauna Loa and Kilauea volcanoes on the island of Hawaii.


Our results indicate that amakihi have genetically distinct, spatially structured populations that correspond with altitude. We detected very few apapane and no iiwi in low-elevation habitats, and genetic results reveal only minimal differentiation between populations at different altitudes in either of these species.


Our results suggest that amakihi populations in low elevation habitats have not been recolonized by individuals from mid or high elevation refuges. After generations of strong selection for pathogen resistance, these populations have rebounded and amakihi have become common in regions in which they were previously rare or absent.