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Keywords:

  • cytochrome b;
  • ecological diversification;
  • glaciation;
  • habitat shift;
  • molecular phylogeny;
  • Vireo

We constructed a molecular phylogeny for a clade of eye-ringed vireos (Vireo flavifrons and the V. solitarius complex) to examine existing hypotheses of speciation and ecological diversification. Complete sequences of the mtDNA cytochrome b gene were obtained from 47 individuals of this group plus four vireonid outgroups. Mean levels of sequence divergence in the clade varied from 0.29% to 5.7%. Differences were greatest between V. flavifrons and four taxa of ‘V. solitarius’. The latter separated into three taxonomic, geographical and ecological groups: V. plumbeus plumbeus, V. cassinii cassinii, and V. solitarius solitarius plus V. solitarius alticola. These differed by an average of 2.6–3.2%. Populations within each group revealed low levels of sequence variation (x- = 0.20%) and little geographical structuring. The mtDNA data generally corroborate results from allozymes. V. plumbeus shows a loss of yellow-green carotenoid pigmentation from the ancestral condition. The occupancy of relatively dry habitats by this species and V.cassinii represents a derived ecological shift from more-humid environments occupied by other species of vireonids. Ecological divergence in this clade occurred in allopatry and is associated with generic-level stability in morphometrics and foraging styles. Migratory behaviour and seasonal habitat shifts apparently evolved multiple times in vireos breeding in temperate environments. Present geographical and ecological distributions, and low levels of intrataxon genetic divergence, are hypothesized to be the result of postglacial regionalization of climate–plant associations and rapid northward expansion of breeding ranges.