Background: Order Charadriiformes (shorebirds) is an ideal model group in which to study a wide range of behavioural, ecological and macroevolutionary processes across species. However, comparative studies depend on phylogeny to control for the effects of shared evolutionary history. Although numerous hypotheses have been presented for subsets of the Charadriiformes none to date include all recognised species. Here we use the matrix representation with parsimony method to produce the first fully inclusive supertree of Charadriiformes. We also provide preliminary estimates of ages for all nodes in the tree.
Results: Three main lineages are revealed: i) the plovers and allies; ii) the gulls and allies; and iii) the sandpipers and allies. The relative position of these clades is unresolved in the strict consensus tree but a 50% majority-rule consensus tree indicates that the sandpiper clade is sister group to the gulls and allies whilst the plover group is placed at the base of the tree. The overall topology is highly consistent with recent molecular hypotheses of shorebird phylogeny.
Conclusion: The supertree hypothesis presented herein is (to our knowledge) the only complete phylogenetic hypothesis of all extant shorebirds. Despite concerns over the robustness of supertrees (see Discussion), we believe that it provides a valuable framework for testing numerous evolutionary hypotheses relating to the diversity of behaviour, ecology and life-history of the Charadriiformes.