Ratites are large, flightless birds and include the ostrich, rheas, kiwi, emu, and cassowaries, along with extinct members, such as moa and elephant birds. Previous phylogenetic analyses of complete mitochondrial genome sequences have reinforced the traditional belief that ratites are monophyletic and tinamous are their sister group. However, in these studies ratite monophyly was enforced in the analyses that modeled rate heterogeneity among variable sites. Relaxing this topological constraint results in strong support for the tinamous (which fly) nesting within ratites. Furthermore, upon reducing base compositional bias and partitioning models of sequence evolution among protein codon positions and RNA structures, the tinamou–moa clade grouped with kiwi, emu, and cassowaries to the exclusion of the successively more divergent rheas and ostrich. These relationships are consistent with recent results from a large nuclear data set, whereas our strongly supported finding of a tinamou–moa grouping further resolves palaeognath phylogeny. We infer flight to have been lost among ratites multiple times in temporally close association with the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event. This circumvents requirements for transient microcontinents and island chains to explain discordance between ratite phylogeny and patterns of continental breakup. Ostriches may have dispersed to Africa from Eurasia, putting in question the status of ratites as an iconic Gondwanan relict taxon. [Base composition; flightless; Gondwana; mitochondrial genome; Palaeognathae; phylogeny; ratites.
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