Evolutionary history of Ramphastos toucans: molecular phylogenetics, temporal diversification, and biogeography

Mol Phylogenet Evol. 2009 Dec;53(3):923-34. doi: 10.1016/j.ympev.2009.08.017. Epub 2009 Aug 20.


The toucan genus Ramphastos (Piciformes: Ramphastidae) has been a model in the formulation of Neotropical paleobiogeographic hypotheses. Weckstein (2005) reported on the phylogenetic history of this genus based on three mitochondrial genes, but some relationships were weakly supported and one of the subspecies of R. vitellinus (citreolaemus) was unsampled. This study expands on Weckstein (2005) by adding more DNA sequence data (including a nuclear marker) and more samples, including R. v. citreolaemus. Maximum parsimony, maximum likelihood, and Bayesian methods recovered similar trees, with nodes showing high support. A monophyletic R. vitellinus complex was strongly supported as the sister-group to R. brevis. The results also confirmed that the southeastern and northern populations of R. vitellinus ariel are paraphyletic. R. v. citreolaemus is sister to the Amazonian subspecies of the vitellinus complex. Using three protein-coding genes (COI, cytochrome-b and ND2) and interval-calibrated nodes under a Bayesian relaxed-clock framework, we infer that ramphastid genera originated in the middle Miocene to early Pliocene, Ramphastos species originated between late Miocene and early Pleistocene, and intra-specific divergences took place throughout the Pleistocene. Parsimony-based reconstruction of ancestral areas indicated that evolution of the four trans-Andean Ramphastos taxa (R. v. citreolaemus, R. a. swainsonii, R. brevis and R. sulfuratus) was associated with four independent dispersals from the cis-Andean region. The last pulse of Andean uplift may have been important for the evolution of R. sulfuratus, whereas the origin of the other trans-Andean Ramphastos taxa is consistent with vicariance due to drying events in the lowland forests north of the Andes. Estimated rates of molecular evolution were higher than the "standard" bird rate of 2% substitutions/site/million years for two of the three genes analyzed (cytochrome-b and ND2).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Birds / classification
  • Birds / genetics*
  • Cell Nucleus / genetics
  • DNA, Mitochondrial / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Genetics, Population*
  • Geography
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Models, Genetic
  • Phylogeny*
  • Sequence Alignment
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • South America
  • Tropical Climate


  • DNA, Mitochondrial