Map of the ancient world flycatcher family tree

Species of the Old World flycatcher family

Photo: The European Robin is more closely related to the African White-browed Robin-Chat than to the Japanese Robin of East Asia, despite the close similarity in appearance between European and Japanese Robins and the sharply different plumage of the European Robin and White Robin-chat. The similarity between the two robins is an example of convergent evolution, which means that species can independently evolve in similar phenotypes, for example because of similar lifestyles. Thrush Nightingale and Bluethroat are close relatives and also more closely related to the Japanese Robin than to the European Robin. However, the bluethroats’ closest relatives occur in the Himalayas and the Chinese mountains.
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Credit: Thomas Carlberg, Hans Bester and Craig Brillsford /

The closest relatives of the European robin are found in tropical Africa. Therefore the European robin is not closely related to the Japanese robin, although they are very similar in appearance. This is confirmed by a new study of the Old World flycatcher family, to which these birds belong. The study included 92 percent of the more than 300 species in this family.

“The fact that European and Japanese robins are so similar despite not being closely related is one of many examples of so-called convergent evolution in this group of birds. Similarities in appearance can evolve in distant relatives, for example, as a result of similarities in pattern life,” says Per Alstrom of Uppsala University, one of the researchers behind the study published in Molecular genetics and evolution.

The Old World flycatcher family consists of birds belonging to more than 300 species distributed throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa. The family includes not only flycatchers, but also nightingales, talkies, wheatens, red-seeds, hyacinths, thrushes and other exotic groups. Twelve species breed in Sweden, of which the most famous are the European robin, pied flycatcher, and thrush nightingale. All but three of these species winter in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia.

Researchers from Uppsala University, the University of Gothenburg and the University of Florida used DNA to reconstruct the family trees of 92 percent of the species in the Old World flycatcher family. This study confirms previous findings regarding relationships as well as uncovers new, unexpected relationships.

The species called flycatchers are placed in many different branches in the family tree, and thus belong to groups that are not closely related. In relation to the Swedish flycatcher, the collared and red-breasted flycatcher are closely related to each other, while the spotted flycatcher is more distant relatives. “

Uppsala University has a long tradition of researching fly traps, especially on collared and square fly traps. The current study supports the hypothesis that the blue-throated, colloquially called the ‘nightingale of the Swedish mountains’, has its closest relatives in the Himalayas and mountains of China.

“I never cease to be amazed by the many unexpected relationships revealed by DNA analyzes,” says Per Alstrom.

Zhao, M., Burleigh, J.G., Olsson, U., Alström, P. & Kimball, RT 2022. A near-complete and time-calibrated phylogeny of Old World flycatchers, robins and chats (Aves, Muscicapidae). Molecular genetics and evolution In the press (

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