Quirks & Quarks

The Avian Tree of Life

A new family tree for birds reveals details of an evolutionary "big bang" after the dinosaur extinction.
Birds from the collection of the US National Mueum of Natural History in Washington, DC (AAAS/Carla Schaffer)
All school-children know that 66 million years ago, a massive extinction killed most of the life on Earth, including all of the dinosaurs. Slightly better informed school-children know that some dinosaurs survived - the birds. And after the dust settled on that event, the surviving birds diversified enormously, evolving to exploit a huge range of ecological niches left vacant. But the speed with which the birds diversified after the cataclysm means that understanding the avian family tree from fossils has been difficult - too much was happening at the same time. Now, a new avian family tree has been produced by a team co-led by Dr. Erich Jarvis, a neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He and his colleagues decoded the genomes of 45 bird species, representing a cross-section of bird diversity, and used it to reconstruct the family relationships between them. Their work also revealed important insights into bird-song, feathers, and why some species might be at greater risk of extinction than others.

Related Links

- Science Special Section - The Avian Genome
- Duke University release
- Duke Research Blog
- Avian Phylogenomics project
- Audubon Magazine story
- Smithsonian Magazine story