The native Hawaiian honeycreepers represent a classic example of adaptive radiation and speciation, but currently face one the highest extinction rates in the world. Although multiple factors have likely influenced the fate of Hawaiian birds, the relatively recent introduction of avian malaria is thought to be a major factor limiting honeycreeper distribution and abundance. We have initiated genetic analyses of class II ?? chain Mhc genes in four species of honeycreepers using methods that eliminate the possibility of sequencing mosaic variants formed by cloning heteroduplexed polymerase chain reaction products. Phylogenetic analyses group the honeycreeper Mhc sequences into two distinct clusters. Variation within one cluster is high, with dN > d S and levels of diversity similar to other studies of Mhc (B system) genes in birds. The second cluster is nearly invariant and includes sequences from honeycreepers (Fringillidae), a sparrow (Emberizidae) and a blackbird (Emberizidae). This highly conserved cluster appears reminiscent of the independently segregating Rfp-Y system of genes defined in chickens. The notion that balancing selection operates at the Mhc in the honeycreepers is supported by transpecies polymorphism and strikingly high dN/dS ratios at codons putatively involved in peptide interaction. Mitochondrial DNA control region sequences were invariant in the i'iwi, but were highly variable in the 'amakihi. By contrast, levels of variability of class II ?? chain Mhc sequence codons that are hypothesized to be directly involved in peptide interactions appear comparable between i'iwi and 'amakihi. In the i'iwi, natural selection may have maintained variation within the Mhc, even in the face of what appears to a genetic bottleneck.
Additional publication details
Natural selection of the major histocompatibility complex (Mhc) in Hawaiian honeycreepers (Drepanidinae)