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Analyses of mitochondrial DNA nest ratite birds within the Neognathae: supporting a neotenous origin of ratite morphological characters

Anna Härlid, Ulfur Arnason

Abstract

It is commonly acknowledged that the basal divergence among extant birds is between Palaeognathae and Neognathae. However, recent analyses of mitochondrial sequences have challenged that notion. In order to investigate this fundamental phylogenetic question, the complete mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) molecule of the rook Corvus frugilegus (Passeriformes) was sequenced and included in phylogenetic analyses with the previously reported complete mtDNAs of the chicken Gallus gallus (Galliformes) and two ratite species, the ostrich Struthio camelus and the rhea Rhea americana (Struthioniformes). The analyses reconstructed a split between Passeriformes and a branch including Galliformes and Struthioniformes. Thus, the result is inconsistent with the traditional understanding of a basal avian divergence between Palaeognathae and Neognathae. The findings suggest that the morphological characteristics of the ratites are secondarily acquired, probably through neoteny and that the ratites are descendants of flying, neognathous ancestors.

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