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Norfolk Island Robins are a distinct endangered species: ancient DNA unlocks surprising relationships and phenotypic discordance within the Australo-Pacific Robins

Kearns, Anna M., Joseph, Leo, White, Lauren C., Austin, Jeremy J., Baker, Caitlin, Driskell, Amy C., Malloy, John F., Omland, Kevin E.
Conservation genetics 2016 v.17 no.2 pp. 321-335
DNA, climate change, conservation status, data collection, endangered species, fauna, habitat destruction, morphometry, phylogeny, plumage, predation, prioritization, taxonomy, tissues, Pacific Ocean, Pacific Ocean Islands
Uncertain taxonomy hinders the effective prioritization of taxa for conservation. This problem is acute for understudied island populations in the southwest Pacific Ocean, which are increasingly threatened by habitat loss, predation and climate change. Here, we offer the first test of taxonomic limits and phylogenetic affinities of the iconic Pacific Robin radiation (Petroica multicolor) in order to prioritize the conservation of its nominotypical subspecies, the endangered Norfolk Island Robin (P. m. multicolor). We integrate phylogenetic analyses of ancient DNA and quantitative measures of plumage and morphometric variation to show that the Norfolk Island Robin should be recognized as a distinct species. Phenotypic and genetic datasets contradict the longstanding treatment of Pacific Robins (including Norfolk Island Robins) and Scarlet Robins (P. boodang) as a single species. Instead, we show that Norfolk Island Robins are deeply divergent from Scarlet Robins and have more genetic similarity to Red-capped Robins (P. goodenovii) than to other Pacific Robins. This finding is unrepresentative of the current taxonomic and conservation status of the Norfolk Island Robin, which we propose should be recognised as an endemic endangered species. Our study clearly shows that in the absence of contemporary tissues, ancient DNA approaches using historical museum specimens can address taxonomic questions that morphological traits are unable to resolve. Further, it highlights the need for similar studies of other threatened Norfolk fauna with uncertain taxonomic status in order to ensure appropriate conservation prioritization.