Comparative Phyloclimatic Analysis and Evolution of Ecological Niches in the Scimitar Babblers (Aves: Timaliidae: Pomatorhinus)

Árpád S. Nyári, Sushma Reddy

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We present the first extensive and integrative analysis of niche evolution based on climatic variables and a dated molecular phylogeny of a heterogeneous avian group of Southeast Asian scimitar babblers of the genus Pomatorhinus. The four main clades of scimitar babblers have species that co-occur in similar areas across southern Asia but some have diverged at different timeframes, with the most recently evolved clade harboring the highest number of species. Ecological niche models and analysis of contributing variables within a phylogenetic framework indicate instances of convergent evolution of members of different clades onto similar ecological parameter space, as well as divergent evolution of members from within clades. Pomatorhinus species from different clades occupying Himalayan foothills show convergence towards similar climatic tolerances, whereas within a clade, allopatric sister-species occurring in the Himalayas have diverged to occupy different climatic parameter spaces. Comparisons of climatic tolerances of Himalayan foothills taxa with species distributed further south in Assam/Burma and Burma/Thailand indicate convergence towards similar parameter spaces in several climatic variables. Niche overlap was observed to be lower among species of the youngest clade (ruficollis) and higher among species of older clades (ferruginosus). Analysis of accumulation of ecological disparity through time indicates rapid divergence within recent time frames. As a result, Himalayan taxa originating at different temporal scales within the four main scimitar babbler clades have differentiated ecologically only in recently diverged taxa. Our study suggests that the repeated orogenic and climatic fluctuations of the Pliocene and Pleistocene within mainland Southeast Asia served as an important ecological speciation driver within scimitar babblers, by providing opportunities for rapid geographic expansion and filling of novel environmental niches.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere55629
JournalPloS one
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 6 2013
Externally publishedYes


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