What We Can Learn From a New Bird Tree of Life
For Charles Darwin, birds offered a window into the process of natural selection—and ultimately, evolution. After observing the remarkable variation of beaks among Galapagos Islands finches in the 1830s, the British naturalist remarked: “Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.” Yet more than 150 years after Darwin, the evolutionary relationships between birds remain a compelling mystery.
This month, a coalition of university and government bird scientists will begin an ambitious effort to disentangle those relationships with the newly launched OpenWings Project. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project has the goal of creating a full tree of life, or phylogeny, for the world’s birds. By collecting genetic information for all 10,560 species of birds, researchers hope to create a better picture of how our now-extant avian friends evolved from the dinosaurs that preceded them, and how they might fare in the future.