Back when I took Ornithology as an undergraduate, my knowledge of avian relationships had been formed primarily from the arrangement of species presented in Chandler Robbins et al.’s Birds of North America, ca. 1966. A new, exciting, and confusing world opened up to me in that class, as the year (1988) coincided with the first publications from Sibley and Ahlquist using the cutting edge DNA-DNA hybridization technique. That work suggested some sweeping changes in avian relationships but for evolutionary biologists it represented but a tantalizing tip of a much more interesting iceberg. One day, they hoped, we’d get to do this again, but with entire genomes of birds.
That day has evidently arrived. As widely reported this week, The Avian Phylogenomics Consortium has just published a series of papers that confirm some long-held suspicions about avian systematics, and provide some surprises too.
More than 200 scientists at 80 research institutions have contributed to this colossal study in which the whole genomes of 48 species were analyzed and compared. Those species represented all 32 Neognath orders of birds and 2 (of the 5) Paleognath orders for the most complete picture of avian phylogenetics yet.