Bird genetics research and bird families, Chicago Field Museum of Natural History study

New Genetic Research Turns Bird Families Upside Down

June 30, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

A recent study of bird genetics has researchers startled with surprising new findings. After completing the largest study of bird genetics ever undertaken, U.S. researchers are discovering that a number of birds are not as closely related to similar bird species as was previously thought.

While a lot of the findings are based on the theory of evolution, there is just no disputing the genetic facts. Bird lovers will be shocked to find that despite appearances, falcons are not very closely related to hawks and eagles. Drab and nocturnal nightjars seem to have a very close link to diurnal, colorful hummingbirds while parrots are strikingly similar to songbirds. Previously all assumptions about animal familial groups were made based mainly on appearances but also on activities, breeding habits and diet. Now it would seem that appearances have been truly deceiving and the new findings may even result in a number of field guides being altered in the near future.

The study, which was conducted by Sushma Reddy from the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History, involved studying the genetic sequences of approximately 169 bird species in an attempt to better establish the which bird families belong where on the bird family tree. What he and his team of researchers discovered was that birds that often look very different are actually genetically very similar, while birds that may seem to be closely related may have little or no relation at all. It has taken more than five years to gather the information needed for the research – a task undertaken by the Early Bird Assembling the Tree-of-Life Research Project – and DNA from all major living bird groups was taken to create a complete, overall assessment. The research required for such a massive undertaking is the equivalent of a small genome project and the findings were published in Science on June 27 to make them more accessible to other researchers and biologists.

The new findings will finally put to rest disputes regarding the correct classification of avians, but at the same time it has thrown biologists and ornithologists into a whirlpool of confusion and controversy. At any rate, the results of the study will no doubt require that dozens of bird books, biology textbooks and field guides will have to be corrected.

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