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Tree of Life for Modern Birds Revealed The Largest and Most Complete Study Pinpoints Timing of Evolution

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Eco Voice
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Evolutionary Bioligist, Professor Simon Ho (University of Sydney) and Avian Palaeontologist, Dr Jacqueline Nguyen (Australian Museum & Flinders University) surrounded by a collection of bird specimens at the Australian Musem in Sydney. The pair have collaborated together to publish a ground-breakung academic paper regarding the origin and evolution of bird species. March 28, 2024. Photograph by James Alcock / Australian Museum.

Australian Museum

In a world first, a team of international scientists including three Australians, Al-Aabid Chowdhury and Professor Simon Ho from University of Sydney, and Dr Jacqueline Nguyen from Australian Museum and Flinders University, have determined the family tree of modern birds and pinpointed the timing of their evolution. Their findings have been published today in Nature.

The largest study ever undertaken of modern bird genomes, the scientists combined genomic data of more than 360 bird species with data from nearly 200 bird fossils to reconstruct the most well-supported Tree of Life for modern birds.

The research revealed that most modern bird groups appeared within a very small evolutionary window of only 5 million years. These findings support the hypothesis that birds made the most of opportunities after an asteroid struck earth 66 million years ago wiping out the dinosaurs.

The comprehensive study was led by Assistant Professor Josefin Stiller from the University of Copenhagen, along with Associate Professor Siavash Mirarab from the University of California, San Diego and Professor Guojie Zhang from Zhejiang University.

“Our study has resolved some previous disputes about the bird family tree and added new nuance to the textbook knowledge of bird evolution,” Assistant Professor Stiller said.

Earlier studies had already established that the 10,000 species of living birds form three major groups. About 500 species belong to the flightless ratites group or the landfowl-waterfowl group, however all other birds form a third large and diverse group called Neoaves.

The latest study has been able to establish deeper understanding of relationships in the Neoaves group, which itself contains 10 major sub-groups of birds. These include the colourfully named ‘Magnificent Seven’, including cuckoos, doves, and flamingos, along with three ‘orphan’ groups of birds whose ancestry has long been uncertain.

Professor Ho, who specialises in evolutionary biology at the University of Sydney, said the research has worked out the evolutionary relationships of the major bird groups.

“With such a huge amount of genome data, our study has been able to provide the clearest picture of the bird family tree so far, particularly among the ‘Magnificent Seven’ and three ‘orphan’ bird groups, which make up 95% of bird species,” Professor Ho said.

Australian Museum and Flinders University avian palaeontologist, Dr Jacqueline Nguyen, said the fossil information was used to work out the timescale of the bird family tree.

“By combining evidence from nearly 200 bird fossils, we were able to pinpoint an extremely important period of bird diversification that happened immediately after the extinction of the dinosaurs,” Dr Nguyen explained.

The genomes also reveal a new grouping of birds that the researchers have named ‘Elementaves’, inspired by the four ancient elements of earth, air, water and fire. The group includes birds that are successful on land, in the sky, and in water. Some birds have names relating to the sun, representing fire. Penguins, pelicans, swifts, hummingbirds and shorebirds are among the birds that have been placed in Elementaves.

Two of the most well-known groups of birds in Australia, the passerines (songbirds and relatives) and parrots, share a very close relationship. Songbirds include familiar birds such as magpies, ravens, finches, honeyeaters and fairy-wrens. They originated in Australia about 50 million years ago and have become the most successful group of birds, making up nearly half of all bird species worldwide.

Despite the enormous scale of the latest genome study, there is one mystery that continues. The researchers were unable to work out the relationships of the hoatzin, a distinctive bird that is only found in South America and is the sole survivor of its entire lineage.

The findings are the outcome of nearly a decade of research involving scientists from across the globe working together on the Bird 10,000 Genomes Project (B10K), which aims to sequence the complete genomes of every living bird species.

Chief scientist and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute, Professor Kris Helgen, said that genomic tools have precipitated one of the great revolutions in biological sciences.

“The global scientific community has come together to champion impressive genome projects like Bird 10K. Efforts like these can address long-standing questions about evolution, in this case for all living species of birds. They do this by drawing on new genetics techniques, expertise on anatomy and the fossil record, and carefully curated DNA samples, which are stored behind-the-scenes in the collections of natural history museums in Australia and around the world,” Professor Helgen said.

About Australian Museum

The Australian Museum (AM) was founded in 1827 and is the nation’s first museum. It is internationally recognised as a natural science and culture institution focused on Australia and the Pacific. The AM’s mission is to ignite wonder, inspire debate and drive change. The AM’s vision is to be a leading voice for the richness of life, the Earth and culture in Australia and the Pacific. The AM commits to transforming the conversation around climate change, the environment and wildlife conservation; to being a strong advocate for First Nations cultures; and to continuing to develop world-leading science, collections, exhibitions and education programs. With 22 million objects and specimens and the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI), the AM is not only a dynamic source of reliable scientific information on some of the most pressing environmental and social challenges facing our region, but also an important site of cultural exchange and learning.

About University of Sydney

The University of Sydney is Australia’s first university. For more than 170 years we have been empowering brilliant minds from all walks of life to strive for better – for themselves, their communities and the world. We are ranked among the world’s top 20 teaching and research universities and are first in Australia and seventh in the world for sustainability.

About Flinders University

Flinders University is a globally focused, locally engaged institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching, learning and research. Ranked in the top two per cent of world universities, we are home to almost 26,000 students, over 2000 staff, and exceptional student experience.

Key facts:

Key Points ‘Tree of Life’ for Modern Birds.

 1) The scientists analysed genome data of more than 360 bird species to reconstruct the largest and most complete Tree of Life for modern birds.

 2) The science paper is the result of nearly a decade of research, involving an international team of scientists working together on the Bird 10,000 Genomes Project. This project aims to sequence the complete genomes of every living bird species.

 3) The research by the scientists has worked out the evolutionary relationships of the major bird groups, particularly among the “Magnificent Seven” and 3 “orphan” bird groups, which make up 95% of bird species.

 4) The scientists combined genome data with data from nearly 200 bird fossils to pinpoint the timing of the evolution of modern birds. They  found that most modern bird groups appeared within a small window of only 5 million years. This supports the idea that birds made the most of opportunities after the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

5) But even with the enormous scale of our genome study, they were still unable to solve the mystery of where the Hoatzin fits in the bird tree of life. The Hoatzin (one of the “orphan” groups) is unique to South America and is the last survivor of its lineage.


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