The Strange History of Birds

 

     A dramatic expansion in genetics research capacity has enabled scientists to learn some surprising things about birds and their evolutionary history.

     Using new DNA research techniques, scientists have gained knowledge that turns traditional groupings of bird species upside down.  For example, field guides typically grouped bird species by observable similarities like size, color, and habitat.  But the new research shows that living bird species may be far more genetically similar to birds that seem very different than they are to species that seem similar.

     Recent research reveals that falcons, for instance, are more closely related to parrots than they are to hawks, even though they look much more like hawks.  And flamingoes, it turns out, are more closely related to pigeons than they are to almost all other waterbirds!

     The new bird research, according to Science News, was conducted by a consortium of 200 scientists from around the world and funded by the Chinese genetics institute BGI and other sources.  Findings suggest that many bird species that appear closely related are not examples of close ancestral relationships after all.  

     Instead, such bird species’ similarity is the result of convergence over time.  These different species evolved in different parts of the world.  But they developed in some of the same ways because they occupied a similar environmental niche.  With similar environmental forces operating in these species’ distant niches, birds in far distant areas developed some of the same characteristics, even though they are not related genetically.

     Sorting out which modern bird species are truly related to one another and which are not had long posed a problem for researchers, explains ornithologist Shannon Hackett of the Field Museum of Chicago.  An avian ‘big bang,’ she explains, took place around the time dinosaurs went extinct and sent many lineages ‘flying’ off in different directions.  

     Before current genetic research techniques became available, it had been hard to figure out which fossils belonged with which emerging group, Hackett explains.  In fact, many scientists believed it would never be possible to sort out which birds were truly most related to which other species.

     One fascinating aspect of this new research is that parrots, songbirds, and humans, for that matter, have converged on very similar genes involved in vocal learning.  In fact, birds may prove to be a useful species for further insights into human speech disorders.  The usual medical research species–monkeys and mice–don’t learn sounds as birds and humans do.–April Moore 

 

 

 

 

3 Responses to “The Strange History of Birds”

  1. Larry A. Scott Says:

    Most fascinating! I anticipate sharing that with some family, friends, and hapless associates. :-)

    Thank you again April Moore.

    Larry

  2. Livvie Mellan Shapiro Says:

    Fascinating, fascinating! Thanks for sharing, April.

  3. Gail Says:

    fascinating. Expand that seemingly weird comparison we learned about in 8th grade science where a moth species looked a lot like a monarch butterfly.

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