The causes of mitochondrial DNA gene tree paraphyly in birds

Bailey D. McKay, Robert M. Zink

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

145 Scopus citations


Gene tree paraphyly is a potentially serious problem because many phylogenetic and phylogeographic studies assume species are monophyletic. Funk and Omland (Funk, D.J., Omland, K.E., 2003. Species-level paraphyly and polyphyly: frequency, causes, and consequences, with insights from animal mitochondrial DNA. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Evol. Syst. 34, 397-423) found that a seemingly high proportion of bird species (16.7%) were paraphyletic in their mtDNA gene trees. This could imply that mtDNA is an unreliable or even misleading marker for delimiting species. We expand on Funk and Omland's survey and identify the causes of species-level paraphyly in birds. We find that in most cases paraphyly is caused by incorrect taxonomy. In such cases, mtDNA serves systematics by exposing and clarifying taxonomic errors. We find the next most common cause of paraphyly to be incomplete lineage sorting due to recent speciation. Here mtDNA gives a consistent picture of evolution, given the timeframe, but it is not useful for delimiting species and other criteria must be employed. There were relatively few clear instances of paraphyly due to hybridization, though there were more cases where incomplete lineage sorting and hybridization could not be distinguished. We ultimately conclude that, far from a hindrance, mtDNA is generally a useful tool that should continue to facilitate delimitation of avian species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)647-650
Number of pages4
JournalMolecular Phylogenetics and Evolution
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2010


  • Gene tree paraphyly
  • Speciation
  • Species limits
  • mtDNA


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