Scientists map the genetic make-up of 363 bird species 

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The genetic make-up of 363 species of bird – ranging from the humble chicken to the amazing bird-of-paradise – has been mapped by scientists for the first time.

The work, by researchers from the Smithsonian Institute and about 100 other institutions, involved analysing over 17 trillion base pairs of DNA from bird species.

Researchers say 267 of the 363 bird species have had their genomes sequenced for the first time as part of this study – expanding the knowledge of the bird family tree.

Since the first bird evolved more than 150 million years ago, its descendants have adapted to a vast range of ecological niches, giving rise to tiny, hovering hummingbirds, plunge-diving pelicans and showy birds-of-paradise. 

Today, more than 10,000 species of birds live on the planet – and now scientists are well on their way to capturing a complete genetic portrait of that diversity.

Since the first bird evolved more than 150 million years ago, its descendants have adapted to a vast range of ecological niches, giving rise to tiny, hovering hummingbirds, plunge-diving pelicans and showy birds-of-paradise (pictured)

The genetic make-up of 363 species of bird - ranging from the humble chicken (pictured) to the amazing bird-of-paradise - has been mapped by scientists for the first time

The genetic make-up of 363 species of bird - ranging from the humble chicken (pictured) to the amazing bird-of-paradise - has been mapped by scientists for the first time

The genetic make-up of 363 species of bird – ranging from the humble chicken (pictured) to the amazing bird-of-paradise – has been mapped by scientists for the first time

Researchers say 267 of the 363 bird species have had their genomes sequenced for the first time as part of this study - expanding the knowledge of the bird family tree

Researchers say 267 of the 363 bird species have had their genomes sequenced for the first time as part of this study - expanding the knowledge of the bird family tree

Researchers say 267 of the 363 bird species have had their genomes sequenced for the first time as part of this study – expanding the knowledge of the bird family tree

Published in the journal Nature, scientists sequenced the genomes of widespread, economically important birds such as the chicken, as well as rare, lesser known species such as the Henderson crane that lives on one island in the Pacific Ocean.

In total, the species sequenced by the team represent more than 92 per cent of the world’s avian families, according to the study authors.

The data from the study will advance research on the evolution of birds and aid in their conservation, as it is freely available to the scientific community.  

The release of the new genomes is a major milestone for the Bird 10,000 Genomes Project (B10K), an international collaboration of scientists.

The B10K project was organised by researchers from around the world and aims to sequence and share the genome of every avian species on the planet.

‘B10K is probably the single most important project ever conducted in the study of birds,’ said Gary Graves, curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History. 

Researchers have sampled birds for 92 per cent of all know avian species as part of the study including the Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos

Researchers have sampled birds for 92 per cent of all know avian species as part of the study including the Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos

Researchers have sampled birds for 92 per cent of all know avian species as part of the study including the Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos

A male Anna's Hummingbird, native to Arizona, hovering in mid-air. This is just one of 363 bird species that have had their genome sequenced

A male Anna's Hummingbird, native to Arizona, hovering in mid-air. This is just one of 363 bird species that have had their genome sequenced

A male Anna’s Hummingbird, native to Arizona, hovering in mid-air. This is just one of 363 bird species that have had their genome sequenced

‘We’re not only hoping to learn about the phylogenetic relationships among the major branches of the tree of life of birds, but we’re providing an enormous amount of comparative data for the study of the evolution of vertebrates and life itself.’

Comparing genomes across bird families will enable researchers to explore how traits evolved in different birds and understand evolution at a molecular level.

Ultimately, B10K researchers aim to build a comprehensive ‘avian tree of life’ that charts the genetic relationships between all modern birds. 

Such knowledge will not only reveal birds’ evolutionary past but will also be vital in guiding conservation efforts in the future.

More than 150 ornithologists, molecular biologists and computer scientists came together to obtain specimens and analyse more than 17 trillion base pairs of DNA for the family-level phase of the B10K project. 

Royal Flycatcher male (Onychorhynchus coronatus), photographed during bird banding research in Costa Rica, opens his spectacular crest feathers in a threat display. Birds of all shapes and sizes have been sequenced to help researchers understand their evolution

Royal Flycatcher male (Onychorhynchus coronatus), photographed during bird banding research in Costa Rica, opens his spectacular crest feathers in a threat display. Birds of all shapes and sizes have been sequenced to help researchers understand their evolution

Royal Flycatcher male (Onychorhynchus coronatus), photographed during bird banding research in Costa Rica, opens his spectacular crest feathers in a threat display. Birds of all shapes and sizes have been sequenced to help researchers understand their evolution

About 40 per cent of the newly sequenced genomes were found from tissue samples preserved in the National Museum of Natural History's Avian Genetic Resource Collection - started by Graves in 1986

About 40 per cent of the newly sequenced genomes were found from tissue samples preserved in the National Museum of Natural History's Avian Genetic Resource Collection - started by Graves in 1986

About 40 per cent of the newly sequenced genomes were found from tissue samples preserved in the National Museum of Natural History’s Avian Genetic Resource Collection – started by Graves in 1986

Sequencing and analysis began in 2011, but the data represent several decades of work by field collectors and collections management staff who have collected and preserved birds from every continent, Graves said.

About 40 per cent of the newly sequenced genomes were found from tissue samples preserved in the National Museum of Natural History’s Avian Genetic Resource Collection – started by Graves in 1986. 

‘It might seem that having a genome for each bird family or species is a bit like stamp collecting, but this massive cooperative effort has given us a set of very important genomic resources for conservation,’ said researcher Rob Fleischer.

Fleischer, head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics, said it could help map population declines.

‘Having the genomes simplifies the search for genes responsible for important survival traits such as resistance to deadly introduced diseases.’

Red winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus. Over the next few years researchers hope to have sequenced all 10,000 or so known species of bird

Red winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus. Over the next few years researchers hope to have sequenced all 10,000 or so known species of bird

Red winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus. Over the next few years researchers hope to have sequenced all 10,000 or so known species of bird

Comparing genomes across bird families will enable researchers to explore how traits evolved in different birds and understand evolution at a molecular level

Comparing genomes across bird families will enable researchers to explore how traits evolved in different birds and understand evolution at a molecular level

Comparing genomes across bird families will enable researchers to explore how traits evolved in different birds and understand evolution at a molecular level

Sequencing and analysis began in 2011, but the data represent several decades of work by field collectors and collections management staff who have collected and preserved birds from every continent, Graves said

Sequencing and analysis began in 2011, but the data represent several decades of work by field collectors and collections management staff who have collected and preserved birds from every continent, Graves said

Sequencing and analysis began in 2011, but the data represent several decades of work by field collectors and collections management staff who have collected and preserved birds from every continent, Graves said

‘Through 34 years of field work and dozens of expeditions, we were able to get the stockpile of high-quality DNA that actually makes this project possible,’ Graves said. 

‘Many of those resources were stored long before DNA sequencing technology had been developed, preserved for future analyses their collectors could not have imagined at the time. 

‘It’s one of the many reasons why natural history museum collections and museum-based research programs are so important!’

With 363 genomes complete, B10K is expanding its efforts to encompass the next level of avian classification. 

In this phase, the team will sequence thousands of additional genomes, aiming to represent each of the approximately 2,300 genera of birds. 

The findings have been published in the journal Nature

BIRDS USE SONG TO COMMUNICATE WITH OTHER BIRDS

Birds use their voices to communicate with other birds.

Sharp tunes are an efficient way to communicate over long distance, especially when you are small and live in dense habitats like rain forests.

Most bird species use specific calls to identify themselves and to communicate a nearby threat.

Birdsong is a specialised type of call used by many species to help them mate.

Almost exclusively a male activity, birdsong helps the singer to indicate he is fit, healthy and ready to breed.

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