Rapid, independent evolution of flightlessness in four species of Pacific Island rails (Rallidae): an analysis based on mitochondrial sequence data


  • Beth Slikas,

  • Storrs L. Olson,

  • Robert C. Fleischer

B. Slikas and R. C. Fleischer,
Molecular Genetics Lab,
Smithsonian Institution, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008, USA.
E-mail: slikasb@nzp.si.edu.
S. L. Olson,
Department of Vertebrate Zoology,
National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560, USA.


Flightless rails were once ubiquitous in the avifauna of Pacific oceanic islands. Most species have become extinct since human colonization of islands began about 2000 years ago. In this study, we use mitochondrial sequence data to estimate the phylogenetic relationships and ages of four species of flightless insular rails in the genus Porzana: palmeri, from Laysan Island in the Hawaiian archipelago; sandwichensis, from the island of Hawaii; monasa, from Kosrae Island in Micronesia; and atra, from Henderson Island in the Pitcairn group. Although all four species survived into historic times, all but atra are now extinct. The optimal trees show that palmeri is descended from Porzana pusilla, a volant crake distributed widely throughout the Old World. Porzana sandwichensis, P. monasa, and P. atra are each descended from the lineage leading to P.tabuensis, a volant rail widespread in northern and eastern Australia and on islands north to Micronesia and the Philippines and east through Polynesia. Loss of flight appears to have evolved rapidly in these insular rails, based on both sequence divergence values and data on the ages of the islands. In the case of the Laysan Rail (palmeri), divergences including loss of flight probably evolved in less than 125,000 years.