Red-billed tropicbird Phaethon aethereus mesonauta, copyright Dominic Sherony.

Belongs within: Neognathae.

The Phaethontiformes include the modern tropicbirds (Phaethon) and their fossil relatives. Tropicbirds are pelagic plunge-diving birds with predominantly white plumage, much reduced legs and the central two tail feathers extended into an elongate train. Three living species are recognised with the white-tailed tropicbird Phaethon lepturus having a yellow bill in contrast to the red bill of the red-biled tropicbird P. aethereus and red-tailed tropicbird P. rubricauda. The last species has red tail-streamers whereas the other two species have a white tail.

The fossil record of Phaethontidae potentially goes back to the Palaeogene, with the Prophaethontidae recorded from the Palaeocene of North America and the Eocene of Europe. Prophaethontids appear likely to have been better divers and swimmers than their living relatives (Mayr 2009).

Characters (from Olson 1985): Procoracoid foramen present; well-developed pectoral crest; scapula with poorly developed acromion process.

<==Phaethontiformes [Phaethontes]
    |  i. s.: Proplegadis Harrison & Walker 1971 M09, M02
    |           `--*P. fisheri Harrison & Walker 1971 M02
    |--Prophaethontidae CC10
    |    |--Lithoptila abdounensis Bourdon et al. 2005 M09
    |    |--Zhylgaia aestiflua Nessov 1988 M09
    |    `--Prophaeton Andrews 1899 M02
    |         `--*P. shrubsolei Andrews 1899 M02
    `--Phaethontidae BKB15
         |--Phaethusavis pelagicus Bourdon et al. 2008 M09
         |--Heliadornis Olson 1985 M02
         |    |--*H. ashbyi Olson 1985 M02
         |    `--H. paratethydicus Mlíkovský 1997 M02
         `--Phaethon Linnaeus 1758 (see below for synonymy) CC10
              |  i. s.: P. candidus [incl. P. flavirostris] S66
              |         P. demersus Linnaeus 1758 L58
              |--P. lepturus Daudin in Buffon 1802 BKB15, CC10 [incl. *Lepturus edwardsii CC10]
              |    |--P. l. lepturus CC10
              |    |--P. l. ascensionis (Mathews 1915) CC10
              |    |--P. l. catesbyi Brandt 1838 CC10
              |    |--P. l. dorotheae Mathews 1913 [=*Leptophaethon lepturus dorotheae] CC10
              |    |--P. l. europae Le Corre & Jouventin 1999 CC10
              |    `--P. l. fulvus Brandt 1838 CC10
              `--+--*P. aethereus Linnaeus 1758 CC10, BKB15, CS77
                 |    |--P. a. aethereus CS77
                 |    |--P. a. indicus Hume 1876 CS77
                 |    `--P. a. mesonauta Peters 1930 CS77
                 `--P. rubricauda Boddaert 1783 BKB15, CC10 (see below for synonymy)

Phaethon Linnaeus 1758 [=Phaeton Linnaeus 1766; incl. Leptophaethon Mathews 1913, Lepturus Reichenbach 1853 non Brisson 1760, Phoenicurus Bonaparte 1857 nec Forster 1817 nec Rudolphi 1819, Scaeophaethon Mathews 1913] CC10

Phaethon rubricauda Boddaert 1783 BKB15, CC10 [=Phaeton rubricauda CC10, Phaethon rubricaudus CC10, *Phoenicurus rubricauda CC10; incl. Phaethon rubricauda erubescens Rothschild 1900 non Phaeton erubescens Gray 1844 CC10, Phaethon novaehollandiae Brandt 1840 CC10, Phaethon rubricauda novaehollandiae CC10, Scaeophaethon rubricauda novaehollandiae CC10, Phaeton phoenicuros Gmelin 1789 CC10, Phaeton phoenicurus CC10, Scaeophaethon rubricauda roseotincta Mathews 1926 CC10, Phaethon rubricauda roseotincta CC10, Phaethon rubricauda westralis Mathews 1912 WS48, *Scaeophaethon westralis CC10]

*Type species of generic name indicated


[BKB15] Burleigh, J. G., R. T. Kimball & E. L. Braun. 2015. Building the avian tree of life using a large-scale, sparse supermatrix. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 84: 53–63.

[CC10] Checklist Committee (OSNZ). 2010. Checklist of the Birds of New Zealand, Norfolk and Macquarie Islands, and the Ross Dependency, Antarctica 4th ed. Ornithological Society of New Zealand and Te Papa Press: Wellington.

[CS77] Cramp, S., & K. E. L. Simmons (eds) 1977. Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa: The Birds of the Western Palaearctic vol. 1. Ostrich to Ducks. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

[L58] Linnaeus, C. 1758. Systema Naturae per Regna Tria Naturae, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. Tomus I. Editio decima, reformata. Laurentii Salvii: Holmiae.

[M09] Mayr, G. 2009. Paleogene Fossil Birds. Springer.

[M02] Mlíkovský, J. 2002. Cenozoic Birds of the World. Part 1: Europe. Ninox Press: Praha.

Olson, S. L. 1985. A new genus of tropicbird (Pelecaniformes: Phaethontidae) from the Middle Miocene Calvert Formation of Maryland. Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 98 (4): 851-855.

[S66] Schlegel, H. 1866. Communication from, on mammals and birds collected in Madagascar. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1866: 419–426.

[WS48] Whittell, H. M., & D. L. Serventy. 1948. A systematic list of the birds of Western Australia. Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia, Special Publication 1: 1–126.

Last updated: 8 December 2021.

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