Evolutionary Breakthrough of Hawks and Eagles (Accipitridae)

Binomial nomenclature is the primary system that scientists use to name, group, and differentiate organisms in the tree of life. Occasionally, new data is collected that causes scientists to reconsider and refine these hypotheses, and names must be changed to reflect the current state of knowledge.

Hawks, eagles, and some vultures are classified in the family Accipitridae. Many of the species in this group are charismatic and well known to the public, but there is lingering uncertainty about their evolutionary relationships. A recent paper published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, co-authored by Dr. Matthew Halley (Assistant Curator of Birds at Delaware Museum of Nature and Science) with lead author Dr. Therese Catanach (Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University) and Dr. Stacy Pirro (Iridian Genomes), sheds new light on this evolutionary puzzle. By analyzing genetic (DNA) sequences from 237 species, they propose a major revision to the taxonomy of Accipitridae, which will require several name changes.

This family tree shows the currently accepted grouping of various hawk species.

For local birders, the most intriguing finding is the non-monophyly of the cosmopolitan genus Accipiter. To resolve this issue, Catanach et al. propose to reclassify the American Goshawk (Accipiter atricapillus) and Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) in the genus Astur.

This Cooper’s Hawk skeleton on exhibit in the museum may need a new title soon.

Catanach, T. A., Halley, M. R., and S. Pirro. 2024. Enigmas no longer: using Ultraconserved Elements to place several unusual hawk taxa and address the non-monophyly of the genus Accipiter (Accipitriformes: Accipitridae). Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society, blae028. https://doi.org/10.1093/biolinnean/blae028

If you are unable to access the paper and would like a copy, please email Dr. Halley.

Learn more about Dr. Halley’s research projects and publications on his website.