More than 200 scientists from around the world have collaborated to map "the avian tree of life" — an undertaking that one evolutionary biologist has called "mind-blowing" in scope.

Photo Credit: Art G. via flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over at The Guardian, Ian Sample reports on the project and a sampling of its notable findings, which appear in eight main papers at the journal Science, and in more than 20 others in other scientific journals:

The project has thrown up extraordinary similarities between the brain circuits that allow humans to speak and those that give some birds song: a case of common biology being arrived at via different evolutionary routes.

Some birds are shown to have unexpectedly close relationships, with falcons more closely related to parrots than eagles or vultures, and flamingoes more closely related to pigeons than pelicans. The map also suggests that the earliest common ancestor of land birds was an apex predator, which gave way to the prehistoric giant terror birds that once roamed the Americas.

"This has not been done for any other organism before," Per Ericson, an evolutionary biologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, told the journal Science. "It's mind-blowing."

The scientists began their task by analysing fingernail-sized pieces of frozen flesh taken from 45 bird species, including eagles, woodpeckers, ostriches and parakeets, gathered by museums around the world over the past 30 years. From the thawed-out tissue, they extracted and read the birds' whole genomes. To these they added the genomes of three previously sequenced species. It took nine supercomputers the equivalent of 400 years of processor time to compare all the genomes and arrange them into a comprehensive family tree.

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Read more at The Guardian.