Posted by: Loren Coleman on June 27th, 2008
The secret kinship of falcons and parrots is one of many surprises in a landmark genetic study of 169 bird species being published by Chicago Field Museum researchers.
A consequence of the study in the June 27, 2008 edition of the journal Science is a re-ordering of the field guides that many of America’s 80 million bird-watchers use. Most bird guides are based on scientific classifications, which experts said the new work could change in numerous ways.
“This is the most important single paper to date on the higher-level relationships of birds,” said Joel Cracraft, curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was not part of the study.
The Field Museum launched a five-year effort with seven other institutions to do an unprecedented genetic analysis discovering many cases in which seemingly similar birds were merely distant relatives, or birds long assumed to be unrelated were closely linked.
Grebes, a type of diving bird, are not related to loons, as ornithologists had long believed. Surprisingly, grebes appear closely related to flamingos.
The analysis also showed falcons are more closely related to parrots than to other hunters such as hawks and eagles. If true, the finding would mean that falcons do not even belong in the scientific order originally named for them.
The new lineage helps showcase how evolution works, experts said. Although falcons do not appear closely related to hawks, each species developed similarly shaped beaks and talons to hunt prey—an evolutionary process that biologists call convergence.
Working the new results into the guidebooks that birders use could take years, but many experts said some change is likely. Such books normally take their cue from the American Ornithologists’ Union, which releases an updated checklist of bird species each year.
Carla Cicero, curator of birds at the University of California-Berkeley’s museum of ornithology and a member of the committee that decides on changes to the checklist, said the committee typically waits for many teams to duplicate new findings before changing its bird classifications.
Still, “there are going to be a lot of changes, I can tell you that,” Cicero said.
Although conclusions like the falcon-parrot link may rattle some bird specialists, Joel Greenberg, an expert bird-watcher and editor of an anthology of Chicago nature writing, said such surprises can deepen the delight of studying birds.
“This may be one more of God’s little jokes,” Greenberg said.
For more, see “Field Museum’s genetic study rewrites family tree on birds,” by Jeremy Manier and Tim De Chant, Chicago Tribune, Jnue 27, 2008.