New mitochondrial DNA data affirm the importance of Pleistocene speciation in North American birds

Evolution. 2004 May;58(5):1122-30. doi: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2004.tb00445.x.


The timing of origin of modern North American bird species in relation to Pleistocene glaciations has long been the topic of significant discussion and disagreement. Recently, Klicka and Zink (1997) and Avise and Walker (1998) enlivened this debate by using calibrated molecular distance values to estimate timing of speciations. Here we use new molecular studies to test their conclusions. Molecular distance values for 39 pairs of proven sister species, 27 of which are based on new data, alter the currently perceived pattern that avian species splits occurred mainly in the Pliocene and early-mid-Pleistocene. Mitochondrial DNA divergence values for this set of taxa showed a skewed distribution pointing toward relatively young speciation times, in contrast to the pattern presented by Klicka and Zink (1997) for 35 sister plus non-sister species pairs. Our pattern was not significantly different from that of Avise and Walker (1998) for "intraspecific phylogroups," some of which are species. We conclude that the entire Pleistocene, including the last two glacial cycles (<250,000 years ago), was important in speciations of modern North American birds. A substantial number of speciations were both initiated and completed in the last 250,000 years. Simultaneously, many taxa began to diverge in the Pleistocene but their speciations are not yet complete (per Avise and Walker 1998). The suggestion that durations of speciations average two million years is probably a substantial overestimate.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds / genetics*
  • Climate
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genetic Variation*
  • North America
  • Phylogeny*
  • Species Specificity
  • Time Factors


  • DNA, Mitochondrial