New Research Identifies Drivers of Rich Bird Diversity in Neotropics

Research posts

An international team of researchers is challenging a commonly held view that explains how so many species of birds came to inhabit the Neotropics, an area rich in rain forest that extends from Mexico to the southernmost tip of South America. The new research, published today in the journal Nature and co-led by Brian Smith, an assistant curator in the Museum’s Division of Vertebrate Zoology, suggests that tropical bird speciation is not directly linked to geological and climate changes, as traditionally thought. Instead, it is driven by movements of birds across physical barriers such as mountains and rivers that occur long after those landscapes’ geological origins.

“The Neotropic zone has more species of birds than any other region on Earth,” said Smith, who started this work as a postdoctoral researcher at Louisiana State University. “The unanswered question has been—how did this extraordinary bird diversity originate?”

In the Neotropics, bird speciation—the process by which new species are formed—is usually linked to changes in Earth’s landscape over time. When rivers change course, mountains rise, and continents drift, a once-continuous population can be divided into two or more smaller populations that eventually become different species. But an alternative model attributes Neotropical bird speciation to the movement of the animals across these geographical barriers, not necessarily linked to a change in landscape.

A bay-headed tanager (Tangara gyrola), which can be found in Costa Rica, Panama, and much of northern South America. Via Wikimedia Commons/Julian Londono

A bay-headed tanager (Tangara gyrola), which can be found in Costa Rica, Panama, and much of northern South America.

Via Wikimedia Commons/Julian Londono

To examine these two models, the scientists compared genetic patterns among a diverse array of bird lineages that occur in the Neotropics. Each of the 27 lineages analyzed contained populations situated on the opposite side of large dispersal barriers, and with genetic data the scientists were able to estimate the time that the populations became isolated from one another. They found that most speciation occurred in the Pleistocene, which began about 2.6 million years ago, long after the origin of the Andes Mountains and the Amazonian river system, aligning with the alternative speciation model. Under this model, bird lineages with a longer occupation of the landscape have a higher likelihood of moving across geographical barriers and diversifying.

“It may be only in birds that the genetic sampling is sufficiently dense to examine how interactions between the landscape and natural populations of birds influence the speciation process,” said Louisiana State University professor Robb Brumfield, lead investigator on the project. “The thousands of samples used in the study represent the culmination of over 30 years of field expeditions led by generations of LSU students and scientists, plus similar work done by ornithologists at other research collections. Biological research collections such as these are priceless.”