Field of Science

The Origins of Song

The world is currently home to roughly ten thousand known species of bird. These come in a significant range of varieties and sizes: ostriches, hummingbirds, penguins, sandgrouse. But one particular clade of birds accounts for roughly half of all living species: the true songbirds of the Euoscines.

Brown treecreeper Climacteris picumnus, a representative of an early-diverging Australian clade of songbirds, copyright Patrick Kavanagh.

Though the name 'Euoscines' doesn't appear to have received a whole lot of usage in the literature, the clade it refers to actually has a long history of recognition. The Euoscines are one of the major subgroups of the well-recognised order Passeriformes, the perching birds. Members of the Euoscines include such familiar animals as finches, crows, wrens, swallows, skylarks, sparrows, and a whole host of others. On a morphological basis, Euoscines are mostly united by the distinctive structure of their syrinx, or voice-box, which is controlled by five pairs of intrinsic muscles (Ericson et al. 2002; by way of contrast, the lyrebirds and scrubbirds that form the clade most closely related to the Euoscines have only three pairs). This complex syringeal structure is doubtless a factor in the elaborate songs that characterise many representatives of the clade and from which the group gets its vernacular name. Molecular data has further strengthened the case for the Euoscines.

Whereas the phylogenetic integrity of the Euoscines is no considered by most researchers to be beyond reproach, its exact origins are a little more mysterious. Outside the Euoscines, the members of the Passeriformes fall into three well supported clades. As noted above, the immediate sister group of the Euoscines is a small Australian clade, the Menurae (the Menurae and Euoscines together form the singing birds, the Oscines). Another very small clade, the New Zealand wrens of the Acanthisittidae, is thought to represent the sister group of all other Passeriformes. The largest clade of Passeriformes outside the Euoscines is the Suboscines, whose members include such examplars as the broadbills and pittas of the Old World tropics, and the antbirds, tapaculos and tyrant flycatchers of the New World. The Suboscines form the sister clade to the Oscines.

Australian logrunner Orthonyx temminckii, another early-diverging exemplar, copyright JJ Harrison.

We also have a fairly clear idea of basal relationships within the Euoscines, primarily from molecular data. I won't dwell on details here (I am aware that while litanies of names can hold a lot of interest for myself, others may find them more tedious) but a detail that has garnered attention is that a preponderance of the basal euoscine lineages are enitrely or predominantly Australasian. This, together with the Australasian distribution of two of the other three major passerine clades, has lead to the proposal that Australasia represents the ancestral homeland for the Euoscines as a whole. But when did the Euoscines first make their appearance?

This is where things begin to get fuzzier. The fossil record of Passeriformes, as for many other birds, is very patchy and often difficult to interpret. Possible passerine bones have been identified from the early Eocene of Australia but they are fragmentary and their identity has been questioned. The earliest well-preserved passerines come from the early Oligocene of Europe (Bochenski et al. 2021). These fossils preserve features indicating that at least the oscine and suboscine lineages had diverged by this time. Attempts to apply molecular dating to the passerine phylogeny, however, have lead to proposals that the major lineages of passerines diverged much earlier, during the Cretaceous era in fact. The divergence of the passerines has then been linked to the break-up of Gondwana, beginning with the isolation of the New Zealand wrens as New Zealand separated from Antarctica about 80 million years ago.

Spotted pardalote Pardalotus punctatus, representing the meliphagoid lineage of Australasian songbirds, copyright Patrick Kavanagh.

Personally, I find this completely incredible. Firstly, it implies a gap of at least 25 million years or so at the beginning of the passerine fossil record (if we accept the Australian fossils as passerines). I've already noted that passerines do not have a great fossil record overall, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere where they are supposed to have originated, but other small birds do have a decent fossil record in the Northern Hemisphere during this time period. The absence of passerines from Europe and North America in the Palaeocene and Eocene does seem likely to be genuine. Secondly, it implies the survival through the devastation of the end-Cretaceous extinction event of not just at least three lineages of passerines but also those bird lineages that diverged before the passerines. At a bare minimum, that requires at least ten clades of birds surviving the Cretaceous and more than likely requires significantly more, most of those lineages also having no recognisable Cretaceous fossil record. Meanwhile, all other non-bird dinosaurs that we do know were around, many of them ecologically very similar, were completely wiped out. Thirdly (and this is perhaps the one that really gets me), it requires that these passerine lineages divided by continental drift then failed to disperse enough over the next eighty million years to obscure the imprint of said drift. Need I remind you that birds can fly? Hand-waving explanations such as the members of many of these early-diverging lineages being poor fliers, or the northern and southern continents being further apart at the time, just don't cut it in my opinion. Why should we assume that if modern Acanthisittidae or Menurae are poor fliers, their extinct relatives also had to be? Eighty million years seems like more than enough time for variation in flight strength to evolve. And a re Suboscines even any more prone to being poor fliers than Euoscines? As for the greater distance between continents, passerines have made their way to isolated oceanic islands (such as those in the mid-Atlantic) that were never close to any landmass. Phylogenetic evidence suggests that some modern passerine groups are indeed the descendants of long-distance dispersals, such as the South American vireos being apparently descended from Asian ancestors, or Hawaiian honeycreepers originating from near the Arctic. And of the previously mentioned European Oligocene passerines, some such as Wieslochia weissi were possibly not part of the Suboscines + Oscines clade (Manegold 2009), indicating that passerines of this grade could indeed make the ocean crossing. So no, the idea of Cretaceous songbirds is just not something I buy right now.


Bochenski, Z. M., T. Tomek, M. Bujoczek & G. Salwa. In press 2021. A new passeriform (Aves: Passeriformes) from the early Oligocene of Poland sheds light on the beginnings of Suboscines. Journal of Ornithology.

Ericson, P. G. P., L. Christidis, M. Irestedt & J. A. Norman. 2002. Systematic affinities of the lyrebirds (Passeriformes: Menura), with a novel classification of the major groups of passerine birds. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 25: 53–62.

Manegold, A. 2009. The early fossil record of perching birds (Passeriformes). Palaeontologia Africana 44: 103–107.


  1. Agreed on the implausibility of Cretaceous songbirds. More recent timetree estimates like Moyle et al. (2016), Oliveros et al. (2019), and Kuhl et al. (2021) have supported post-Cretaceous origins for oscines. (As do the big Jarvis et al. and Prum et al. bird phylogenies, though they are of course less focused on passeriform sampling.)

    1. Good to know that things are getting more sensible. Thanks for the updates (and I'd actually seen the Kuhl et al. paper but forgotten there was a dating component).

  2. Re litanies of names, I might mention I find them easier to digest if accompanied by a cladogram.


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