Archipelago-endemic bird radiations are familiar to evolutionary biologists as key illustrations of evolutionary patterns. However, such radiations are in fact rare events. White-eyes (Zosteropidae) are birds with an exceptionally high colonization and speciation potential; they have colonized more islands globally than any other passerine group and include the most species-rich bird genus. The multiplication of white-eye island endemics has been consistently attributed to independent colonizations from the mainland; the white-eyes of the Gulf of Guinea archipelago had been seen as a classic case, spanning as great a breadth of phenotypic diversity as the family worldwide. Contrary to this hypothesis, our molecular phylogenetic analysis places the Gulf of Guinea white-eyes in just two radiations, one grouping all five oceanic island taxa and the other grouping continental island and land-bridge taxa. Numerous ‘aberrant’ phenotypes (traditionally grouped in the genus Speirops) have evolved independently over a short space of time from nonaberrant (Zosterops) phenotypes; the most phenotypically divergent species have separated as recently as 0.22 Ma. These radiations rival those of Darwin’s finches and the Hawaiian honeycreepers in terms of the extent of adaptive radiation per unit time, both in terms of species numbers and in terms of phenotypic diversity. Tempo and patterns of morphological divergence are strongly supportive of an adaptive radiation in the oceanic islands driven by ecological interactions between sympatric white-eyes. Here, very rapid phenotypic evolution mainly affected taxa derived from the youngest wave of colonization, in accordance with the model of asymmetric divergence owing to resource competition in sympatry.
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