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Exploring the Evolutionary History of Birds

Falcons have long been classified with other predatory birds such as hawks and eagles. It was a surprise to researchers working on the "Early Bird" project (part of the Assembling the Tree of Life program) when they discovered that the falcon is more closely related to parrots and songbirds than it is to other predatory birds. The project is providing new evidence on the evolutionary history of birds.

Researchers from Chicago's Field Museum, the University of Florida and other institutions have pieced together a comprehensive phylogeny (evolutionary family tree) from large volumes of genetic data representing all major bird groups. The researchers compared the sequences of 19 distinct sections of DNA across 169 individual species. The enormous scope of the project enabled a comprehensive look at the evolutionary relationships that underlie the diversity of bird species. The falcon's place on the evolutionary tree was one of many unexpected outcomes. The project confirmed that shore birds, thought to give rise to all modern birds, are not actually at the base of the phylogenetic tree. A few species, such as the enigmatic "hoatzin" of South America, which has evaded classification for years, did not produce any conclusive relationships.

Previous efforts to make comparisons using genetic data have been limited to only a few bird species or a handful of sections of DNA at any given time, and have thus left many of the relationships between different bird groups unresolved. Only the enormous scope of this project enabled a comprehensive look at the evolutionary relationships that underlie bird diversity. The strength of the relationships identified in the study provides evidence of transformative concepts about the evolution of birds. The classifications and names assigned to a large number of species and printed in countless field guides will have to be updated. The study will provide a basis for other questions and research to be explored by researchers.

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  • Photo of a falcon perched on a branch
Falcons have long been classified with other predatory birds, but researchers have discovered they are more closely related to parrotts and songbirds.
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