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Birds diversified in “big bang” after dinosaurs died out

Dec. 12, 2014
Courtesy of the University of Edinburgh,
the University of Sydney
and World Science staff

A ma­jor new study sheds new light on how and when birds evolved and ac­quired fea­tures such as feath­ers, flight and song, sci­en­tists say.

The study charts a burst of ev­o­lu­tion that took place af­ter the di­no­saurs sud­denly died out, about 66 mil­lion years ago. Sci­en­tists say this burst oc­curr­ed as new forms exploited op­port­uni­ties left open by the absence of the din­o­saurs, some of which were the an­cest­ors of these same birds. With­in 10 mil­lion years, re­search­ers found, the avian ex­plos­ion created rep­re­sen­ta­tives of nearly all the ma­jor bird lin­eages with us to­day.

A "family tree" of modern birds. The Avian Phylogenomics Consortium's work over four years brought together more than 200 scientists to examine the evolution of birds. (Credit: Jon Fjelds, U. of Sydney)


The four-year proj­ect de­cod­ed and com­pared the en­tire ge­net­ic fin­ger­print of 48 bird spe­cies to rep­re­sent all these lin­eages—in­clud­ing the wood­peck­er, owl, pen­guin, hum­ming­bird and fla­min­go.

Re­search­ers al­so com­pared these genomes with those of three oth­er rep­tile spe­cies and hu­mans.

They found that bird­song evolved se­pa­rate­ly at least twice. Par­rots and song­birds gained the abil­ity to learn and mim­ic vo­cal ac­ti­vity in­de­pend­ently of hum­ming­birds, de­spite shar­ing many of the same genes. 

The find­ings are con­sid­ered im­por­tant be­cause some of brain pro­cesses that are in­volved in bird sing­ing are al­so as­so­ci­at­ed with hu­man speech.

Birds are the most ge­o­graph­ic­ally di­verse group of land an­i­mals. They help sci­en­tists in­ves­t­i­gate fun­da­men­tal ques­tions in bi­ol­o­gy and ecol­o­gy and they are al­so a ma­jor glob­al food re­source, pro­vid­ing meat and eggs.

More than 200 sci­en­tists con­tri­but­ed to the Avi­an Phy­loge­nomics Proj­ect, which was led by BGI in Shen­zhen, Chi­na, the Uni­vers­ity of Co­pen­ha­gen, Duke Uni­vers­ity in North Car­o­li­na, the How­ard Hughes Med­i­cal In­sti­tute based in Chevy Chase, Md., and the Nat­u­ral His­to­ry Mu­se­um of Den­mark. The find­ings are pub­lished in 23 sci­en­tif­ic pa­pers, in­clud­ing eight in the jour­nal Sci­ence.

Build­ing on this re­search, sci­en­tists at the Na­t­ional Avi­an Re­search Facil­ity in Ed­in­burgh have cre­at­ed 48 da­tabases to share and ex­pand on the in­forma­t­ion as­so­ci­at­ed with the birds’ genomes. They hope that re­search­ers from around the world will con­tin­ue to up­load their own da­ta, of­fer­ing fur­ther in­sights to the ge­net­ics of mod­ern birds.

Such in­forma­t­ion is ex­pected to be use­ful for help­ing sci­en­tists to un­der­stand why in­fec­tious dis­eases, such as bird flu, af­fect some spe­cies but not oth­ers.

“This is just the be­gin­ning. We hope that giv­ing peo­ple the tools to ex­plore this wealth of bird gene in­forma­t­ion in one place will stim­u­late fur­ther re­search,” said Da­vid Burt, act­ing di­rec­tor of the Na­t­ional Avi­an Re­search Facil­ity at the Uni­vers­ity of Ed­in­burgh’s Roslin In­sti­tute. 

“Ul­ti­mately, we hope the re­search will br­ing im­por­tant in­sights to help im­prove the health and wel­fare of wild and farmed birds.”


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A major new study sheds new light on how and when birds evolved and acquired features such as feathers, flight and song, scientists say. The study charts a burst of evolution that took place after the dinosaurs suddenly died out, about 66 million years ago. Scientists say this burst, within 10 million years, gave rise to representatives of nearly all the major bird lineages with us today. The four-year project decoded and compared the entire genetic fingerprint of 48 bird species to represent all these lineages—including the woodpecker, owl, penguin, hummingbird and flamingo. Researchers also compared these genomes with those of three other reptile species and humans. They found that birdsong evolved independently at least twice. Parrots and songbirds gained the ability to learn and mimic vocal activity independently of hummingbirds, despite sharing many of the same genes. The findings are considered important because some of brain processes that are involved in bird singing are also associated with human speech production. Birds are the most geographically diverse group of land animals. They help scientists investigate fundamental questions in biology and ecology and they are also a major global food resource, providing meat and eggs. More than 200 scientists contributed to the Avian Phylogenomics Project, which was led by BGI in Shenzhen, China, the University of Copenhagen, Duke University in North Carolina, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute based in Chevy Chase, Md., and the Natural History Museum of Denmark. The findings are published in 23 scientific papers, including eight in the journal Science. Building on this research, scientists at the National Avian Research Facility in Edinburgh have created 48 databases to share and expand on the information associated with the birds’ genomes. They hope that researchers from around the world will continue to upload their own data, offering further insights to the genetics of modern birds. Such information is expected to be useful for helping scientists to understand why infectious diseases, such as bird flu, affect some species but not others. “This is just the beginning. We hope that giving people the tools to explore this wealth of bird gene information in one place will stimulate further research,” said David Burt, acting director of the National Avian Research Facility at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute. “Ultimately, we hope the research will bring important insights to help improve the health and welfare of wild and farmed birds.”