Biogeography & Phylogenies – University of Copenhagen

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CMEC > Research > Biogeography & Phyloge...

Evolutionary history of organisms can be an important tool in understanding how the  large-scale contemporary variation in biodiversity has developed. However, the theories explaining distributions and diversification of living organisms are limited by a narrow range of phylogenetic data.

Lacking knowledge on arthropods
Most phylogenetic data are based on vertebrates and plants although these groups constitute only 3% of the global biodiversity. As a result, it remains to be tested whether biogeographical and macroevolutionary patterns for vertebrates and plants are the same for arthropods.

Distribution data for megadiverse groups
Through access to our extensive natural history collections of specimens and tissues, research within this theme focuses on generating detailed phylogenetic data on large groups of vertebrates and generating phylogenetic and distribution data for megadiverse groups. In particular we focus our research on birds and spiders.

The main research questions are:

  • How do global diversification patterns differ between young taxonomic groups with large and long-living species (vertebrates and plants) and ancient and mega-diverse groups with small, short-lived species (arthropods)?
  • How does the diversification history of vertebrates and arthropods compare and what is the relative roles of geological history and adaptive redistribution in response to current environmental conditions?
  • How do patterns of long persistence of small clades, and recent phylogenetic expansions, as reflected in asymmetries of the phylogenies, contribute to the overall species richness pattern?
  • How do we explain the variation in diversity of vertebrates and arthropods within a biodiversity hotspot, the Eastern Arc Mountains of East Africa, and what is the role of such a hotspot in a regional, or global, perspective?

Research projects



With more than 6000 living species, the perching birds serve as a model group for global diversification and phylogenetic expansion, as a comprehensive phylogeny is coupled with distributional data for all species. We investigate the relative roles of niche conservatism and expansions into new niche space, and whether expansions relate to earth history events, or are driven by innovations.


Project leader:

Jon Fjeldså

CMEC researchers:

Knud A. Jønsson , Pierre-Henrí Fabre


With 3000 described species in 170 genera, the spider family Araneidae is the largest family of spiders that constructs orb-webs (wheel-shaped two-dimensional webs). We are currently constructing a phylogeny (at genus level) within this group to investigate how and why these behavioural specializations have evolved and how they contribute to the dominance of araneid spiders as predators of flying insects.


Project leader:

Nikolaj Scharff

CMEC researchers:

Dimitar Dimitrov


The core Corvoidea is a group of approximately 750 species of passerine birds that originated in Australo-Papua from where they have dispersed globally. We aim to combine molecular phylogenies with morphometric data and habitat/niche data to understand the underlying biogeographical and macroevolutionary patterns of the group


Project leader:

Knud A. Jønsson

CMEC researchers:
Pierre-Henrí Fabre , Marie Aggerbeck , Petter Zahl Marki


Orb-weaving spiders (Araneoidea) comprise at least a quarter of global spider diversity. Relationships of the orb weaving lineages and even the composition of the groups are, however, still unclear. We use an extensive taxon sample and multiple gene markers to investigate the limits of Araneoidea and the relationships of the included lineages. We also study the drivers of diversification and evolution of complex behavioural and morphological traits in this group.


Project leader:

Dimitar Dimitrov

CMEC researchers:

Nikolaj Scharff


Malkarids are part of the cryptic litter fauna of the wet forests in Chile, Australia, and New Zealand. The group is probably very old, predating the break-up of Gondwanaland (more than 170 million years ago). Four genera and 10 spp. have been formally described but new species and genera remains to be described. We will construct a phylogeny of Malkaridae to investig

ate biogeography and diversification patterns and test the sister groups relationship of Malkaridae.


Project leader:

Nikolaj Scharff


Archaeids are ancient spiders that have a disjunct distribution, with extant species known only from Madagascar, South Africa and Australia, whereas fossil species are known from only the Northern Hemisphere. We have two phylogenies in place that reveal the relationships among extant and fossil species. Using these phylogenies we hope to examine diversification within this ancient lineage, with an emphasis on speciation patterns in Madagascar, and in relation to a novel morphological trait that has evolved in archaeids.


Project leader:

Hannah Wood

CMEC researchers:

Nikolaj Scharff


Despite the general consensus about birds’ position within Theropoda, several questions regarding this group remain unresolved. Perhaps the most notorious one regards the digit homology of birds and theropods. We develop an approach to identify digit homology based on direct optimization. This method is universally applicable to homology problems in serially homologous structures.


Project leader: Dimitar Dimitrov


With several projects in the African Eastern Arc Mountains we investigate the process of speciation, aiming to understand the long-term accumulation of species in certain areas and the gene flow between areas. We use phylogenetic analysis as well as environmental and species distribution data to elucidate how historical processes have shaped the diversity and distribution of species. The research includes a focus on the endemic African Violets (Saintpaulia) and two genera of poorly-studied orb-weaving spiders, Ophrynia and Callitrichia, and forest birds.


Project leaders:

Dimitar Dimitrov , Jon Fjeldså

CMEC researchers:

Nikolaj Scharff , David Nogúes-Bravo ,

Christian Mac Ørum Rasmussen ,

Neil Burgess