Scientists from 80 institutions world-wide collaborate to provide new answers to key evolutionary questions about birds and dinosaurs. Jim Drury reports.
Many geneticists agree that birds are the living descendants of dinosaurs, sharing characteristics such as wings and feathers. Now the authors of an unprecedented scientific collaboration across 80 institutions in 20 countries say they have evidence to back this up. The Avian Phylogenome Project saw 45 avian species genomes sequenced, allowing the creation of arguably the most reliable avian tree of life ever drawn up. Professor of Genetics at the University of Copenhagen Tom Gilbert says the evidence backs up theories that modern birds emerged fast from a mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR OF GENETICS AT UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN, TOM GILBERT, SAYING: "Firstly it tells us that dinosaurs were very, very successful, but actually what it then starts to tell us is we can look at what genetic features are basically common to all birds and by this you can then infer that they were probably present in dinosaurs and we can find a number of things. For example, all birds have got pretty small genomes and this again might tie in with the ability to fly." Twenty eight studies are being published simultaneously in journals such as Science, Genome Biology, and GigaScience, with multiple findings. A Duke University team describe how vocal learning may have evolved independently in a few bird groups, and say this could help our understanding of human speech development. Montclair State University scientists believe mutations that led to birds losing their teeth began 116 million years ago. Other studies revealed that various bird species' sex chromosomes are at different stages of evolution, while saltwater crocodiles and American alligators' genomes are advancing exceptionally slowly. Gilbert says the next stage is to establish a theoretical genome of dinosaurs. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR OF GENETICS AT UNIVERSITY OF COPENHAGEN, TOM GILBERT, SAYING: "That hasn't been finished yet but once that's been done we can actually start to make predictions about features that dinosaurs had, so going from beyond the information from a single little bone, we can actually suggest that dinosaurs had this kind of metabolism or they had these kind of feathers, for example, or they had this kind of vision or this kind of smell or even this kind of brain." The bird genomes were created using frozen tissue samples collected over the past 30 years by museums and other scientific institutions. Most of the sequencing took place at the Beijing Genomics Institute. The consortium is creating a database to be made publicly available for scientists to further our understanding of both modern and prehistoric life.