Phylogenetic evidence for colour pattern convergence in toxic pitohuis: Müllerian mimicry in birds?

John P. Dumbacher , Robert C. Fleischer


Bird species in the genus Pitohui are chemically defended by a potent neurotoxic alkaloid in their skin and feathers. The two most toxic pitohui species, the hooded pitohui (Pitohui dichrous) and the variable pitohui (Pitohui kirhocephalus), are sometimes strikingly patterned and, in certain portions of their geographical ranges, both species share a nearly identical colour pattern, whereas in other areas they do not. Müllerian mimicry (the mutual resemblance of two chemically defended prey species) is common in some other animal groups and Pitohui birds have been suggested as one of the most likely cases in birds. Here, we examine pitohui plumage evolution in the context of a well–supported molecular phylogeny and use a maximum likelihood approach to test for convergent evolution in coloration. We show that the ‘mimetic’ phenotype is ancestral to both species and that the resemblance in most races is better explained by a shared ancestry. One large clade of P. kirhocephalus lost this mimetic phenotype early in their evolution and one race nested deep within this clade appears to have re–evolved this phenotype. These latter findings are consistent with the hypothesis that Müllerian mimicry is driving the evolution for a similar colour pattern between P. dichrous, but only in this one clade of P. kirhocephalus

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