The sudden exchange of mammals over the land bridge between the previously isolated continents of North and South America is among the most celebrated events in the faunal history of the New World. This exchange resulted in the rapid merging of continental mammalian faunas that had evolved in almost complete isolation from each other for tens of millions of years. Yet, the wider importance of land bridge-mediated interchange to faunal mixing in other groups is poorly known because of the incompleteness of the fossil record. In particular, the ability of birds to fly may have rendered a land bridge unnecessary for faunal merging. Using molecular dating of the unique bird faunas of the two continents, we show that rates of interchange increased dramatically after land bridge completion in tropical forest-specializing groups, which rarely colonize oceanic islands and have poor dispersal abilities across water barriers, but not in groups comprised of habitat generalists. These results support the role of the land bridge in the merging of the tropical forest faunas of North and South America. In contrast to mammals, the direction of traffic across the land bridge in birds was primarily south to north. The event transformed the tropical avifauna of the New World.
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