Systematics of the olive thrush Turdus olivaceus species complex with reference to the taxonomic status of the endangered Taita thrush T. helleri
Faculty of Sciences. Biology
Journal of avian biology. - Copenhagen
, p. 391-404
During the last 40 years, few species of African birds have undergone more taxonomic revision than the olive thrush Turdus olivaceus. This is due to disagreement on how to partition the striking phenotypic variation among allopatric populations. The current consensus is to recognise one species T olivaceus, split into three assemblages: (1) the olivaceus group restricted to southern Africa, (2) the swynnertoni group of the Zimbabwean and southern Malawi highlands, and (3) the abyssinicus group of the montane highlands of eastern and central Africa. Mitochondrial DNA sequences from 63 individuals were analysed to investigate the phylogenetic relationships among 16 taxa (species and subspecies) in the olivaceus species complex (plus seven outgroup species), with, particular emphasis on the relationships and taxonomic status of the endangered Taita thrush (helleri). Phylogenetic hypotheses generated using parsimony, maximum likelihood, and Bayesian inference identified a number of discrete clades corresponding to recognised subspecies. Northern (abyssinicus clade) and southern populations (olivaceus+swynnertoni clade) of olive thrush differ by 9-10% in sequence divergence. Furthermore, all analytical methods suggested that helleri (Taita Hills) and roehli (Usambara and Pare Mountains) are reciprocally monophyletic with respect to mtDNA, and 2.5 to 10.5% divergent from all other forms of olive thrush. Both helleri and roehli are surrounded in adjacent highlands by populations of olive thrush that represent a more recent radiation, suggesting that helleri and roehli may be relict taxa which have been able to maintain their genetic integrity. The results of this study support previous arguments for recognizing the arid/woodland T smithi as a species distinct from other southern African forest populations of T olivaceus (including the swynnertoni group). Results further suggest that T abyssinicus, T helleri, and T roehli be accorded species rank.