Background: The birds-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae) form one of the most prominent avian examples of sexual selection and show a complex biogeographical distribution. The family has accordingly been used as a case-study in several significant evolutionary and biogeographical syntheses. As a robust phylogeny of the birds-of-paradise has been lacking, these hypotheses have been tentative and difficult to assess. Here we present a well supported species phylogeny with divergence time estimates of the birds-of-paradise. We use this to assess if the rates of the evolution of sexually selected traits and speciation have been excessively high within the birds-of-paradise, as well as to re-interpret biogeographical patterns in the group.
Results: The phylogenetic results confirm some traditionally recognized relationships but also suggest novel ones. Furthermore, we find that species pairs are geographically more closely linked than previously assumed. The divergence time estimates suggest that speciation within the birds-of-paradise mainly took place during the Miocene and the Pliocene, and that several polygynous and morphologically homogeneous genera are several million years old. Diversification rates further suggest that the speciation rate within birds-of-paradise is comparable to that of the enitre core Corvoidea.
Conclusion: The estimated ages of morphologically homogeneous and polygynous genera within the birds-of-paradise suggest that there is no need to postulate a particularly rapid evolution of sexually selected morphological traits. The calculated divergence rates further suggest that the speciation rate in birds-of-paradise has not been excessively high. Thus the idea that sexual selection could generate high speciation rates and rapid changes in sexual ornamentations is not supported by our birds-of-paradise data. Potentially, hybridization and long generation times in polygynous male birds-of-paradise have constrained morphological diversification and speciation, but external ecological factors on New Guinea may also have allowed the birds-of-paradise to develop and maintain magnificent male plumages. We further propose that the restricted but geographically complex distributions of birds-of-paradise species may be a consequence of the promiscuous breeding system.