Systematics and evolution of the Pan-Alcidae (Aves, Charadriiformes)

N. Adam Smith, Julia A. Clarke

Published online: 
10 October 2014

Puffins, auks and their allies in the wing-propelled diving seabird clade Pan-Alcidae (Charadriiformes) have been proposed to be key pelagic indicators of faunal shifts in Northern Hemisphere oceans. However, most previous phylogenetic analyses of the clade have focused only on the 23 extant alcid species. Here we undertake a combined phylogenetic analysis of all previously published molecular sequence data (∼ 12 kb) and morphological data (n = 353 characters) with dense species level sampling that also includes 28 extinct taxa. We present a new estimate of the patterns of diversification in the clade based on divergence time estimates that include a previously vetted set of twelve fossil calibrations. The resultant time trees are also used in the evaluation of previously hypothesized paleoclimatic drivers of pan-alcid evolution. Our divergence dating results estimate the split of Alcidae from its sister taxon Stercorariidae during the late Eocene (∼ 35 Ma), an evolutionary hypothesis for clade origination that agrees with the fossil record and that does not require the inference of extensive ghost lineages. The extant dovekie Alle alle is identified as the sole extant member of a clade including four extinct Miocene species. Furthermore, whereas an Uria + Alle clade has been previously recovered from molecular analyses, the extinct diversity of closely related Miocepphus species yields morphological support for this clade. Our results suggest that extant alcid diversity is a function of Miocene diversification and differential extinction at the Pliocene–Pleistocene boundary. The relative timing of the Middle Miocene climatic optimum and the Pliocene–Pleistocene climatic transition and major diversification and extinction events in Pan-Alcidae, respectively, are consistent with a potential link between major paleoclimatic events and pan-alcid cladogenesis.