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Keywords:

  • biogeography;
  • Gondwana break-up;
  • phylogeny;
  • ratites

Although ratites have been studied in considerable detail, avian systematists have been unable to reach a consensus regarding their relationships. Morphological studies indicate a basal split separating Apterygidae from all other extant ratites, and a sister-group relationship between Rheidae and Struthionidae. Molecular studies have provided evidence for the paraphyly of the Struthionidae and Rheidae, with respect to a clade of Australasian extant ratites. The position of the extinct Dinornithidae and Aepyornithidae also remains hotly debated. A novel pattern of diversification of ratites is presented herein. The phylogenetic analysis is based on 17 taxa and 129 morphological characters, including 77 new characters. The resultant tree yields a sister-group relationship between New Zealand ratites (Apterygidae plus Dinornithidae) and all other ratites. Within this clade, the Aepyornithidae and Struthionidae are successive sister taxa to a new, strongly supported clade comprising the Rheidae, Dromaiidae, and Casuariidae. The link between South American and Australian biotas proposed here is congruent with numerous studies that have evidenced closely related taxa on opposite sides of the Southern Pacific. These repeated patterns of area relationships agree with current knowledge on Gondwana break-up, which indicates that Australia and South America remained in contact across Antarctica until the earliest Tertiary.  © 2009 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2009, 156, 641–663.