Evolution and systematics

Palaeontological evidence suggests that puffbirds may have arisen from a rather ancient lineage. Certainly fossils of a similar family of birds, named Primobucconidae because they seem closest to modern puffbirds, have been found in widespread Eocene deposits, and are even tentatively identified from Europe. It seems clear that small non-passerines similar to puffbirds were dominant perching birds of the Eocene in both hemispheres.

Despite vacillations regarding the overall taxonomic placement of puffbirds, their closest relatives have never been in doubt: a convincing array of morphological features indicates a link with jacamars (Galbulidae). The two families are traditionally combined to form the Galbulae, a suborder within Piciformes. They differ in bill shape, general comportment, the form of the spinal cord (puffbirds exhibit Piciforme design, jacamars that of Coraciiformes), and number of ribs.

The relationship between these two families and other Pi-ciformes and Coraciiformes is controversial. The association between puffbirds and other Piciforme taxa is apparently weak, supported by few characters, and discounted by an equal number of features that suggest a Coraciiforme origin. It seems safer to treat the Galbulae in an order of its own (Gal-buliformes). The generic structure of Bucconidae is contested and needs review as of 2002.

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