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Hundreds of new genomes help fill the bird’s “tree of life”

From seagulls to capercaillies and crickets, more than 10,000 species of birds live on this planet. Now, scientists are one step closer to understanding the evolution of all this diversity of feathers.

An international team of researchers has published the genetic instruction books of 363 bird species, including 267 genomes first assembled. Comparing all of that genetic data can help scientists find out how the birds ’varied traits evolved, from their various enchanting songs and courtship displays to their adaptations for flight, according to the team in the November 12 issue of the journal Nature.

The birds have received scientific attention for a long time, says ornithologist Michael Braun of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., one of the researchers involved in the project. “That’s partly because birds are relatively easy to see in the wild,” he says.

To compile some of the newly assembled genomes, the team took DNA from bird tissue samples in 17 scientific collections around the world. Overall, the data cover approximately 92 percent of all modern bird families. Some species, such as chickens, are familiar; others are rare, such as Henderson's crayon (Zapornia atra), found only on the remote island of Henderson in the South Pacific.

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Scientists are just beginning to discover the secrets of avian evolution hidden in genomes. Braun says the data can be used to better understand everything, from the parallel evolution of lack of flight in ratites like emus and kiwis (SN: 4/4/19) to the evolution of vision and learning to sing in birds in general.

Researchers have already found peculiarities in the genome of passerines, the order of songbirds that includes more than half of all modern bird species, although the origin of this diversity is not well understood. These alterations include the loss of a gene involved in the development of the vocal tract, which possibly influences the songs of passerines.

This new information is the latest in the Bird 10,000 Genomes Project, but it won’t be the last. International research collaboration does not plan to stop assembling and releasing avian genomes until the latest bird species on the planet are included.

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