Multiple losses of flight and recent speciation in steamer ducks

Tara L. Fulton, Brandon Letts, Beth Shapiro


Steamer ducks (Tachyeres) comprise four species, three of which are flightless. The flightless species are believed to have diverged from a flying common ancestor during the Late Pleistocene; however, their taxonomy remains contentious. Of particular interest is the previously unstudied population of flying steamer ducks in the Falkland Islands. We present the first genetic data from this insular population, and illustrate that the flying and flightless steamer ducks on the Falkland Islands are genetically indistinguishable, in contrast to their traditional classification as separate species. The three species that reside in continental South America form a genetically distinct lineage from the Falkland Island ducks. The Falkland steamer ducks diverged from their continental relatives 2.2–0.6 million years ago, coincident with a probable land bridge connecting the Falkland Islands to the mainland. The three continental species share a common ancestor approximately 15 000 years ago, possibly owing to isolation during a recent glacial advance. The continental steamer duck species are not reciprocally monophyletic, but show some amount of genetic differentiation between them. Each lineage of Tachyeres represents a different stage between flight and flightlessness. Their phylogenetic relationships suggest multiple losses of flight and/or long-term persistence of mixed-flight capability. As such, steamer ducks may provide a model system to study the evolution of flightlessness.


    • Received December 13, 2011.
    • Accepted January 16, 2012.
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