There are around 10,000 bird species in our world, so linking them together is a challenge, but the tree of life for modern birds unveils interesting relationships among almost two hundred of them.
- Researchers drew relationships between 198 species of birds among the 10,000 known in the world
- They found that most water birds are related
- It was uncovered that birds that rely heavily on vision today had a nocturnal ancestor
- They also found that most land birds had a predatory ancestor
Birds have famously evolved from small, feathery dinosaurs. Today, they are considered to be one of the very few branches of animals that have survived the KT event 66 million years ago. It’s believed that birds and crocodiles are the remaining modern species that have slithered through the ages with dinosaurs as their ancestors.
According to avian paleontologist, Daniel Field, they were able to trace back the most common ancestor of today’s modern birds to a species that roamed the earth or flew the skies around 75 million years ago.
The multi-university effort developed a massive study at Yale University, by establishing relationships between 198 species of birds. They traced back to their ancestors, aiming their focus at Neoaves, and encompassing over 90% of their kind. Researchers found that they are essentially broken down into five different subgroups.
This has brought forward a series of interesting relationships that were previously unknown. For example, they found that a majority of water birds are related. They had one common ancestor that preceded all diving, wading or shore birds, such as pelicans, flamingos, gulls, storks, and others. Most of them excepting the ducks, interestingly enough.
According to ornithologist, Jacob Berv, this means that they all likely evolved from just one ancestor, as opposed to evolving into today’s aquatic ecology “multiple times independently”.
Another fascinating find centered around hummingbirds and swifts. While these species rely heavily on their vision today, it appears that they have actually evolved from nocturnal ancestors. This has raised multiple questions among researcher. The major mystery remains how they see so well now. It also surfaces the query of how long their ancestors maintained their limited vision.
The researchers also found that a majority of land birds have evolved from a vicious predator. That means that the frequently seen woodpecker in the woods or the chickadee in your yard was once a hawk-like meat eater. It’s hard to believe that now innocent creatures were once terrifying predators of the skies.
However, the study is yet to be complete. As stated by Berv, “living birds have a very long and complex history”. It would take them between 5 to 10 years to complete their tree of life, but it’s highly important in order to better understand their biology on a broader scale.
Image source: rspb.org.uk