Streaked scrub warbler (Scotocerca inquieta)
Photo: Urban Olsson

Avian evolution and systematics (AVES)

Research group
Active research
Project owner
Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences

Short description

Birds is the most diverse group pf terrestrial vertebrates. They occur at all continents, and has many specialized characteristics that have fascinated biologists for years. Our research aims at understanding how species and groups of species are related, by using genetic markers that give a more neutral picture compared to just looking at external similarities and differences that in many cases have proven unreliable.

More about our project

The birds are the most species-rich group of terrestrial vertebrates. They are found on all continents, and have developed countless specialized properties that have fascinated biologists of all times. Their ability to easily navigate long distances across both land and oceans has among other things led to well-known groups, such as thrushes and larks, being found on all continents. Various evolutionary driving forces have often led to rapid changes in form and function. The appearance of the beak is strongly influenced by the type of food available, while color patterns can be affected by the conflict between the need to be as invisible as possible and to be the one that most clearly signals high social status in the struggle for reproductive success.

This has led to species that live in a similar way or in a similar environment may look similar, even though they are not closely related. On the other hand, populations that have been reproductively isolated for a very long time can also stay very similar to each other because their habitats and other living conditions are so similar that selective pressures for morphological divergence are low. In the first case, previous researchers may have misinterpreted the similarity and treated them as close relatives, while in the second case they may have misinterpreted in a different way and not realized they are no longer the same species.

Our research aims to understand how species and groups of species are related by using genetic markers, which give a more neutral picture of the relationship compared to just looking at external similarities and differences, which in many cases has proven unreliable.

The first step in examining how different species are related may be to determine how species should be delimited. In each individual location it is usually easy to determine which species occur, but in a different place on earth what appears to be the same species may look slightly different, and the question then becomeswhether they should be regarded as different subspecies or as different species. By studying how similar populations in different areas vary in appearance, song, behavior and genetics, the project has discovered several bird species previously unknown to science, and that many subspecies actually meet the requirements to be considered species.