Aquatic birds exceed other terrestrial vertebrates in the diversity of their adaptations to aquatic niches. For many species this has created difficulty in understanding their evolutionary origin and, in particular, for the flamingos, hamerkop, shoebill and pelecaniforms. Here, new evidence from nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequences and DNA–DNA hybridization data indicates extensive morphological convergence and divergence in aquatic birds. Among the unexpected findings is a grouping of flamingos and grebes, species which otherwise show no resemblance. These results suggest that the traditional characters used to unite certain aquatic groups, such as totipalmate feet, foot-propelled diving and long legs, evolved more than once and that organismal change in aquatic birds has proceeded at a faster pace than previously recognized.