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Hawaii’s Honeyeater Birds Tricked Taxonomists

from Science News

Five species of Hawaiian birds have made fools of taxonomists for more than 200 years, thanks to a fine bit of evolutionary illusion-making.

O‘o and kioea birds, now extinct, specialized in feeding on flower nectar using long, curved bills and split tongues tipped with brushes or fringe. Since Captain Cook’s expedition introduced the birds to western science, they have been classified in the honeyeater family with similar-looking nectar sippers living in New Guinea and Australia.

DNA from museum specimens of the Hawaiian species shows that the birds weren’t a kind of honeyeater at all, according to Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Instead the Hawaiians’ resemblance to the western Pacific birds offers a new and dramatic example of how evolution within different lineages can converge on similar forms for similar jobs, he and his colleagues report online December 11 in Current Biology.

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