Genomic Sequencing Breakthrough Maps the Avian Family Tree

Last month, a remarkable consortium of more than 200 scientists from 20 countries released the results of an enormous cooperative research endeavor - the mapping of an expansive avian family tree that demonstrates how birds evolved their amazingly colorful feathers, lost their teeth, learned to sing, and how their brain circuitry functions.

Members of the project, named the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium, published their family-tree findings in eight different papers in the journal Science, and also in more than 20 other scientific journals. No one had ever before used so much genome data from so many species to determine evolutionary relationships.

This project has re-arranged what we know about birds and has revealed unexpectedly close family relationships. For example the study clearly established that falcons are more closely related to parrots than to eagles or vultures (neither Old World nor New World vultures), and that flamingoes are actually evolutionarily and genetically closer to pigeons than they are to pelicans!

“It’s mind-blowing,” said Per Ericson, an evolutionary biologist at the SwedishMuseum of Natural History in Stockholm.

According to an article by Ian Sample in The Guardian, an analysis of the genomes indicated that the common ancestor of living birds lost its teeth more than 100 million years ago. But the significant rise of the birds began about 65 million years ago. A mass extinction - probably caused by an asteroid collision - extinguished most of the larger-bodied dinosaurs, but left a few feathered creatures. The loss of so many other species freed up significant ecological niches, giving these feathered animals a unique chance to diversify.

You can find more on this genome story here:  and here: