Scientists to Build Avian Tree of Life

From the National Science Foundation

Birds — the only surviving descendants of dinosaurs — are used to study a large range of fundamental topics in biology, from understanding the evolution of mating systems to learning about the genetic and environmental factors that affect their beautiful plumages. Although studied often, a complete description of the evolutionary relationships among all 10,560 bird species has not been possible.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) Photo: Annetta Hoagland

Now, with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), researchers from Louisiana State University (LSU), in collaboration with a number of other institutions, are working to build an evolutionary tree of all bird species using cutting-edge technologies to collect DNA from across the genome. Called OpenWings, the project will produce the most complete evolutionary tree of any vertebrate group to date.

“A better understanding of an evolutionary tree of all birds will be transformative for the fields of ornithology and evolutionary biology, particularly as biologists integrate data to these trees from other large projects like the NSF-sponsored oVert Collection Network, the European Research Council-sponsored MarkMyBird project, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird,” said Brant Faircloth, LSU Department of Biological Sciences assistant professor and an investigator for the OpenWings project.

Data gleaned from the project will be released to the public as they are generated for use by scientists, citizens or professionals for their own research. The data will also be used to evaluate a number of ideas about how, when and where birds diversified and those processes responsible for the current distribution of worldwide avian diversity.

“A complete evolutionary tree constructed with cutting-edge data and all bird species represents an unprecedented resource for the research community. Our understanding of the evolution of birds may be rewritten in the coming years,” said Brian Smith, American Museum of Natural History assistant curator of birds and an investigator on the project.

This research is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) (“Collaborative Research: All Birds: A Time-scaled Avian Tree From Integrated Phylogenomic and Fossil Datagrants,” under NSF grants DEB 16-55624, DEB 16-55559, DEB 16-55683 and DEB 16-55736).

Learn more in the LSU news story, Scientists to Build the Avian Tree of Life. (Date image taken: 2014; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: July 20, 2018)