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Bird Research of the Century

Posted on in News
A paper that came out in Science a fortnight before Christmas counts as the most important work on birds this century, by offering something that has eluded science for well over a century – a reliable tree of life for the world’s bird orders.

Biology was shaken some years ago by evidence implying that parrots and perching birds are closely related.

Links between the bird orders have proved extremely difficult to determine, and except for intelligence and a facility for learning songs, there is nothing about perching birds, which include honeyeaters, crows and sparrows, to suggest they are related to parrots. Their beaks and feet are very different.

The evidence that emerged was genetic, but some genetic studies did not find this relationship, so in my book Where Song Began I equivocated, describing the relationship as probable but not proven.

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Jillian Berding says #
    Brilliant account about birds on the ABC Catalyst . My daughter and I we pushing strollers on our property and a Major Mitchell Co
  • Michael Cunningham says #
    Hi Tim, well said! It may possibly be THE bird research of the century but it won't hold that title long. Where Jarvis and colleag
  • Aidan Kelly says #
    great summary - thank you - the DNA jigsaw is fascinating, the unlocking of the stories of evolution is the reward.

Don’t submit to cultural cringe

Posted on in Birds

The enthusiastic response to my latest book, Where Song Began, has been gratifying, but I have noted that a couple of reviewers, while praising the book, hesitated over a core conclusion – that the world’s songbirds had their origins in Australia. One reviewer described this as a ‘suggestion’ as if it were just a bold theory waiting to be proved or disproved by proper evidence. That is not really the situation.

An Australian origin for the songbirds (oscines) has become the consensus position in science because the evidence is so strong, coming as it does from three sources: genetics, fossils and anatomy.

A vast number of genetic studies, using many different genetic sequences, have shown that lyrebirds are the most divergent of all songbirds, and Australian treecreepers and bowerbirds are the next most divergent. The immense genetic differences between these birds (and Australian scrubbirds, which are seldom included in the genetic studies) and other songbirds outside Australia imply that these birds last shared a common ancestor a very long time ago. It is difficult to imagine where that ancestor might have lived if not in Australia. If we were to use the language that was acceptable 15 years ago we could describe Australia as a hotspot for ‘primitive’ songbirds, and that makes it the only plausible place of origin.

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