Loons Have Unexpected Relatives

Common loon family, 2009 (photo by Kim Steininger)

1 July 2020:

If like me you owned a field guide at the turn of the century you remember that loons were the first bird in the book. Ornithologists placed them there because they thought loons were the oldest evolved bird in North America but DNA sequencing changed all that. In 2020 loons are near the middle of the tree and they have unexpected relatives.

In this July 2019 phylogenetic supertree I’ve circled loons and their relatives in blue. Notice that they aren’t related to ducks at all. Ducks are related to chickens.

Phylogenomic supertree of birds, a clockwise spiral from oldest to newest, circle and text added (image from MDPI, July 2019)

Here’s a closer look at the blue section showing that loons (Gaviiformes) stand alone after they split from a common ancestor of penguins, tubenoses, storks, cormorants and pelicans.

Here some of the loons’ unexpected relatives.

Penguins (Sphenisciformes) include king penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus).

King penguins at Salisbury Plain (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tubenoses (Procellariiformes) include the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans).

Storks (Ciconiiformes) include the white stork (Ciconia ciconia) that nests on roofs in Europe.

White storks on nest, Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Cormorants and allies (Suliformes) include the northern gannet (Morus bassanus) and the double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus).

Northern gannet, Bonaventure Island, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Double-crested cormorants visit Pittsburgh in the non-breeding season.

A double-crested cormorant with ring-billed gulls, Duck Hollow, Pittsburgh January 2020 (photo by Jim McCollum)

Pelicans (Pelicaniformes) include the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) we see at the beach and in flight along the coast.

Brown pelicans, one with mouth open, North Carolina (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Brown pelican in flight, California (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So when you see a loon on a northern lake this summer, remember his unexpected relatives.

(photos by Kim Steininger, Jim McCollum and from Wikimedia Commons. Phylogentic supertree from MDPI, July 2019)

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