Temporal range: Late Eocene to present
Sea eagles vary in size, from Sanford's sea eagle, averaging 2.0-2.7 kg, to the huge Steller's sea eagle, weighing up to 9 kg. At up to 6.9 kg, the white-tailed eagle is the largest eagle in Europe. Bald eagles can weigh up to 7.5 kg, making them the largest eagle native to North America. The white-bellied sea eagle can weigh up to 3.4 kg. Their diets consist mainly of fish and small mammals.
The genus Haliaeetus was introduced in 1809 by the French naturalist Marie Jules César Savigny in his chapter on birds in the Description de l'Égypte. The two fish eagles in the genus Ichthyophaga found to lie within the genus in a genetic study in 2005, and then placed therein. They are very similar to the tropical Haliaeetus species.
The 10 living species are:
|Image||Scientific name||Common Name||Distribution|
|Haliaeetus leucogaster||White-bellied sea eagle||India and Sri Lanka through Southeast Asia to Australia|
|Haliaeetus sanfordi||Sanford's sea eagle||Solomon Islands|
|Haliaeetus vocifer||African fish eagle||sub-Saharan Africa|
|Haliaeetus vociferoides||Madagascan fish eagle||Madagascar|
|Haliaeetus leucoryphus||Pallas's fish eagle||Central Asia, between the Caspian Sea and the Yellow Sea, from Kazakhstan and Mongolia to the Himalayas, Bangladesh and northern India.|
|Haliaeetus albicilla||White-tailed eagle||Eurasia|
|Haliaeetus leucocephalus||Bald eagle||Canada, all of the continental United States, and northern Mexico|
|Haliaeetus pelagicus||Steller's sea eagle||coastal northeastern Asia|
|Haliaeetus humilis||Lesser fish eagle||Kashmir through southeast India, Nepal, and Burma towards Indochin|
|Haliaeetus ichthyaetus||Grey-headed fish eagle||South East Asia|
The tail is entirely white in adult Haliaeetus species except for Sanford's, White-bellied, and Pallas's. Three species pairs exist: white-tailed and bald eagles, Sanford's and white-bellied sea eagles, and the African and Madagascan fish eagles, each of these consists of a white- and a tan-headed species.
Haliaeetus is possibly one of the oldest genera of living birds. A distal left tarsometatarsus (DPC 1652) recovered from early Oligocene deposits of Fayyum, Egypt (Jebel Qatrani Formation, about 33 million years ago (Mya) is similar in general pattern and some details to that of a modern sea eagle. The genus was present in the middle Miocene (12-16 Mya) with certainty.
The relationships to other genera in the family are less clear; they have long been considered closer to the genus Milvus (kites) than to the true eagles in the genus Aquila on the basis of their morphology and display behaviour, more recent genetic evidence agrees with this, but points to them being related to the genus Buteo (buzzards/hawks), as well, a relationship not previously thought close.
The origin of the sea eagles and fishing eagles is probably in the general area of the Bay of Bengal. During the Eocene/Oligocene, as the Indian subcontinent slowly collided with Eurasia, this was a vast expanse of fairly shallow ocean; the initial sea eagle divergence seems to have resulted in the four tropical (and Southern Hemisphere subtropical) species living around the Indian Ocean today. The Central Asian Pallas's sea eagle's relationships to the other taxa is more obscure; it seems closer to the three Holarctic species which evolved later and may be an early offshoot of this northward expansion; it does not have the hefty yellow bill of the northern forms, retaining a smaller, darker beak like the tropical species.
The rate of molecular evolution in Haliaeetus is fairly slow, as is to be expected in long-lived birds which take years to successfully reproduce. In the mtDNA cytochrome b gene, a mutation rate of 0.5-0.7% per million years (if assuming an Early Miocene divergence) or maybe as little as 0.25-0.3% per million years (for a Late Eocene divergence) has been shown.