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Robert M. Zink

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Robert M. Zink
Emeritus faculty



Graduate Faculty Memberships

Conservation Biology; Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior

Research Interests


Evolution, biogeography and molecular systematics of birds at the population and species level.



Although molecular techniques evolve, many evolutionary questions remain of interest.  Now that we have entered the genomics era, some old standing questions might indeed be answered.  For example, in ornithology, many have doubted the veracity of subspecies, and I have published numerous papers suggesting they are arbitrary divisions of clines and not the same as evolutionary taxa that are used in systematics, comparative biology, or conservation. But, do characters showing gradual variation over a large geographic area in fact represent local adaptation coupled with gene flow? 

My group is interested in applying genomics techniques to attempt to determine the geographic pattern of adaptive variation across the genome.  For instance, a host of co-distributed species exhibit similar patterns of geographic variation across the Baja peninsula.  We are attempting to discern if there is an underlying genetic basis to these congruent patterns of morphological variation, which are not apparent in nuclear loci.

The addition of quantitative ecological techniques has further expanded the potential to investigate recent evolutionary history.  For example, ecological niche modeling has now become a standard part of our phylogeographic molecular studies.  By reconstructing species potential distributions at the Last Interglacial (120,000 ybp) and Last Glacial Maximum (21,000 ybp), it provides valuable perspective for interpreting genetic structures of modern species.

Several papers from our lab have used molecular systematics to provide perspective on the conservation of rare or endangered species.  For example, we have undertaken analyses of mtDNA, nuclear DNA and ecological niches to show that the coastal population of the California gnatcatcher, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, is actually not an evolutionarily significant taxon.

As new techniques arise, I have also been interested in seeing that they are properly applied. In the early stages of a new technique, such as genomics, papers appear in which the authors, eager to embrace new technology, seem instead to have a technique in search of a question.  I remain interested in comparisons of methods and matching them to appropriate questions, instead of just using them because we can.

I hope to advise students interested in these issues or a combination thereof. As Curator of Birds at the Bell Museum, I expect students to receive training in museum methods, which will qualify them not only for academic positions, but those in museums as well.

It is important for scientists to discuss their findings in a way that can be appreciated by the general public.  I have written a book called The Three Minute Outdoorsman (U MN Press, 2014) that illustrates my interest in this aspect of scientific life.

Selected Publications

Zink, R. M. 2014. Homage to Hutchinson, and the role of ecology in lineage divergence and speciation.  J. Biogeography 41:999-1006.

Hung, C. M., & Zink, R. M. 2014. Distinguishing the effects of selection from demographic history in the genetic variation of two sister passerines based on mitochondrial–nuclear comparison. Heredity.

Zink, R.M., Groth, J. G., Vázquez-Miranda, H., & Barrowclough, G.F. 2013. Phylogeography of the California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica) using multilocus DNA sequences and ecological niche modeling: implications for conservation.  Auk 130:449-458.

Zink, R. M. 2012. The geography of speciation: case studies from birds. Evolution: Education and Outreach. 5:541–546.

Hung, C.-M., S. V. Drovetski, & R. M. Zink. 2012. Multilocus coalescence analyses support a mtdna-based phylogeographic history for a widespread Palearctic passerine bird, Sitta europaea. Evolution 66-9: 2850–2864.

Zink, R. M., Jones A. W., Farquhar, C. C., Westberg, M. C., and Rojas, J. I. G. 2010. Comparison of molecular markers in the endangered black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla) and their interpretation in conservation. Auk 127:797−806.

Pavlova, A., S. Rohwer, S, Drovetski, and R.M. Zink. 2006. Different Post-Pleistocene Eurasian Parids. 2006. The American Genetic Association. 

Zink, R.M., A. Pavlova, S. Rohwer and S. Drovetski. 2006. Barn swallows before barns: population histories and intercontinental colonization. Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Zink, R.M., J. Klicka. 2006. The tempo of Avian Diversification: A Comment on Johnson and Cicero. 2006. Evolution 60(2) 2006 pp. 411-412.

Zink, R.M., S. Drovetski, S. Rowher. 2005. Selective neutrality of mitochondrial ND2 sequences, phylogeography and species limits in Sitta europaea. ScienceDirect - Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 40 (2006) 679-686.

Zink, R.M., 2005. Natural selection on mitochondrial DNA in Parus and its relevance for phylogeographic studies. Proceedings R. Soc. B. (2005) 272, 71-78. 

Pavlova, A., R.M. Zink, and S. Rohwer. 2005. Evolutionary history, population genetics, and gene flow in the common rosefinch (Carpodacus erythrinus) ScienceDirect 36 (2005) 669-681.

Zink, R. M. Natural selection on mitochondrial DNA in Parus and its relevance for phylogeographic inference. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B. 

Zink, R. M., J. Klicka, and B.R. Barber. 2004. The tempo of avian diversification during the Quaternary. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 359, 215-220. 

Zink, R.M. 2004. The role of subspecies in obscuring biological diversity and misleading conservation policy. Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B. 271:561-564. 

Zink, R.M. 2002. Methods in comparative phylogeography, and their application to studying evolution in the North American aridlands. Integrative and Comparative Biology 42:953-959. 

Klicka, J. and R.M. Zink. 1997. The importance of recent ice ages in speciation: a failed paradigm. Science 277:1666-1669.


Additional Links

Bell Museum of Natural History

Ph.D., University of California - Berkeley, 1983
Phone Number
612-624-7207 Fax: 612-624-6777
Email Address

230 Ecology
1987 Upper Buford Circle
St. Paul, MN 55108