Birds use same singing genes that humans use to speak

Conclusion is the largest mapping ever made of the family tree of birds. The complete genomes of 48 bird species were decoded.

Birds use essentially the same singing genes that we humans use to speak. And flamingos are closer to pigeons than to pelicans. These are some startling revelations that emerged from the largest and most sophisticated mapping ever made of the bird family tree.

To perform the mapping, published in more than two dozen separate articles, eight of them in the December 12, 2014 issue of the American science journal Science, scientists from 20 countries spent four years poring over the decoding of the complete genomes of 48 bird species including owls, hummingbirds, penguins and woodpeckers.

June 21, 2014 Photo shows flamingos at the Prague Zoo; study shows that flamingos are genetically closer to pigeons than pelicans.

They also compared birds to three different species of crocodiles - which are the closest reptiles to birds - and found vastly different levels of evolution.

Birds were much faster at developing new traits, while crocodiles - which shared a common ancestor with birds and dinosaurs 240 million years ago - hardly changed.

Birds are "the only dinosaur lineage that survived the mass extinction of the late dinosaur era," about 65 million years ago, said study co-author Ed Braun, an associate professor at the University of Florida.

"Your closest living relative is actually crocodilian, so you get these very different organisms back in time regularly," he added.

A few new bird types are believed to have survived the catastrophic event that swept dinosaurs off the face of the earth, and since then they have rapidly evolved into the arrangement of some 10,000 species that we see today.

According to research, birds lost their teeth about 116 million years ago. The desire to mate and be noticed by the opposite sex led to a rapid evolution of 15 pigmentation genes associated with plumage and feathers, the study added.

Birds' ability to sing and mimic sounds is based on the same brain circuits we see in humans, although they have developed these skills in different evolutionary ways.

Meanwhile, chickens and ostriches are among the birds whose appearance most closely resembles that of their ancestors.

Co-author of the study, Erich Jarvis, associate professor of neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine, described it as "a big surprise that it is actually the chicken that appears to have preserved the largest chromosomal organization of the ancestors compared to other species".

'But this does not mean that other parts of the aspects of this genome are not as old as. The ostrich could even be older, "as it appears that its genome is evolving more slowly than that of chickens.

Scientists were also surprised to find that flamingos, known for their long legs, elegant beaks and characteristic pink plumage, are closely linked to pigeons, doves and small waterfowl known as loons.

"What we found was a really weird couple of birds: where we have pigeons and their like, they come together with flamingos and loons," Braun said.

"Flamingos and loons are quite different in appearance, although both are waterfowl, so you may be surprised to see them together, but relating them to pigeons is especially unexpected," he continued.

To reach these conclusions, scientists used a variety of techniques that helped gather and analyze more than 14,000 genes and build a family tree linking different bird species.

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