Birds of a feather

Scientists have been using DNA analysis to create a new family tree for birds and our finding out the relationships are not necessarily what you would think:

Though land-based dinosaurs died, a few bird ancestors survived, explains Edward Braun, a biologist who studies bird evolution at the University of Florida and contributed to the new analysis.

With the big dinos out of the way, the birds spread their wings and covered the entire globe. They quickly evolved to live at sea and on land — everywhere from deserts to the arctic.

“The major groups of birds appeared very rapidly,” Braun says…

More than 200 researchers got involved, sequencing 48 avian genomes. Then they fed that genetic information into supercomputers. The computers crunched the data, and out popped the most likely evolutionary tree for birds. It shows that “only four lineages survived that massive extinction,” Jarvis says, “and they gave rise to 95 percent of the species we have on the planet today.”

The genetic information reveals other interesting facts about birds, Jarvis says. For example, bird genomes are about a third the size of a mammal genome. Birds appear to have lost a lot of junk DNA, but they also lost some traits to save weight. (For example: They once had teeth but evolved lightweight beaks instead.)…

The overall tree reveals some surprising relationships among bird species. Parrots are actually close relatives of falcons. Pigeons are more closely related to flamingos than they are to crows. And land fowl, like chickens, are related to ducks.

And here’s the family tree:

The updated avian tree shows how many different kinds of birds evolved quickly after a mass extinction 66 million years ago.

Back when I was a father of only 2, I actually used to do some birdwatching.  Not so much as father of 4.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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