Molecular phylogeny of African bush-shrikes and allies: Tracing the biogeographic history of an explosive radiation of corvoid birds

The Malaconotidea (e.g., butcherbirds, bush-shrikes, batises, vangas) represent an Old World assemblage of corvoid passerines that encompass many different foraging techniques (e.g., typical flycatchers, flycatcher- shrikes, canopy creepers, undergrowth skulkers). At present, relationships among the primary Malaconotidea clades are poorly resolved, a result that could either be attributed to a rapid accumulation of lineages over a short period of time (hard polytomy) or to an insufficient amount of data having been brought to bear on the problem (soft polytomy). Our objective was to resolve the phylogenetic relationships and biogeographic history of the Malaconotidea using DNA sequences gathered from 10 loci with different evolutionary properties. Given the range of substitution rates of molecular markers we sequenced (mitochondrial, sex-linked, autosomal), we also sought to explore the effect of altering the branch-length prior in Bayesian tree estimation analyses. We found that changing the branch-length priors had no major effect on topology, but clearly improved mixing of the chains for some loci. Our phylogenetic analyses clarified the relationships of several genera (e.g., Pityriasis, Machaerirhynchus) and provide for the first time strong support for a sister-group relationship between core platysteirids and core vangids. Our biogeographic reconstruction somewhat unexpectedly suggests that the large African radiation of malaconotids originated after a single over-water dispersal from Australasia around 4533.7 mya, shedding new light on the origins of the Afrotropical avifauna.