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Birds Evolved in 'Big Bang,' New Family Tree Reveals

The revised look at bird development shows some surprising relationships and also details how characteristics such as birdsong evolved.

A new family tree of the world's bird species may be the most complete one ever made, and reveals some surprising relationships, as well as showing how characteristics such as birdsong evolved.

More than 200 scientists at 80 institutions spent more than four years sequencing the genomes of bird species and analyzing them using supercomputers as part of a massive effort to reconstruct how birds evolved.

The new bird genealogy is the most comprehensive one to date in terms of the amount of genomic data and the scientific approaches used, said Erich Jarvis, a neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who led one of eight reports based on the findings published today (Dec. 11) in the journal Science. [Animal Code: Our Favorite Genomes]

In one finding, the analysis revealed that the common ancestor of a group called the core landbirds - which includes today's songbirds, parrots and woodpeckers - was a top-level predator of its time, the researchers said.

PHOTOS: World's Oldest Known Bird

Previous studies have tried to reconstruct the relationships between bird species using just a few dozen genes, but each study gave different results. "You couldn't figure out who to believe," Jarvis said.

More than 10,000 bird species are alive today, and from the colorful birds-of-paradise of New Guinea, to the iconic blue-footed boobies of the west coast of the Americas, birds are some of the most varied and fascinating creatures around.

In the new project, the researchers analyzed the genomes of 48 bird species (including 45 that had not been sequenced before), representing all major branches of birds, including the crow, duck, falcon, parakeet, crane, ibis, woodpecker and eagle. About 95 percent of today's birds belong to a group called Neoaves, and most of the species the researchers analyzed belong to this group.

The new findings show that Neoaves underwent a "Big Bang" of evolution, with many new species appearing within just a few million years of the time that most dinosaurs went extinct about 66 million years ago. Previous work had suggested a more gradual evolutionof this group.

Neoavesinitially split into two groups, called Columbea and Passerea, Jarvis and his colleagues said.

One of the most surprising findings was that flamingoes are closely related to pigeons, much more so than they are to birds that might seem more similar, such as pelicans, the researchers said.

Another important finding was that vocal learning, which is the ability to hear sounds and reproduce them (a key feature of human speech), may have evolved independently in several groups of birds. What's more, a brain region in these birds shares similarities with human brain areas involved in speech.

Birds Flew Like Four-Winged Kittyhawk

To construct the family tree, the researchers used supercomputers to compare the complete genome sequences of all the birds studied. Using nine supercomputers, the analysis took 300 CPU years (a CPU year is the time it would take a single computer to complete the task on its own).

Birds have smaller genomes than most other vertebrates, but even with these powerful tools, some parts of the tree were hard to flesh out. It wasn't enough to look at the parts of the genome that encode proteins, the vital biological machinery in cells, the researchers found. They had to look at non-coding sequences between genes, too.

Other findings based on the new research offer clues to how birds' sex chromosomes evolved, how birds came to lose their teeth, how birdsong regulates genes in the brain, as well as details about the common ancestor of birds and crocodiles.

In addition to the studies in Science, an additional 21 reports based on the work are published in other journals.

More from LiveScience:

Pretty Bird: Images of a Clever Parrot Photos of Flightless Birds: All 18 Penguin Species Genetics by the Numbers: 10 Tantalizing Tales Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Article originally appeared on LiveScience.

A new study sequenced the genomes of 45 bird species, revealing the complex web of relationships between these diverse living dinosaurs.

Birds in flight often arrange themselves in aerodynamically optimum positions, according to a new paper in the

journal Nature

that helps to explain how birds fly in such impressive formations. Lead researcher Steven Portugal and his colleagues focused their study on northern bald ibises, but many bird species also exhibit the amazing flight behavior. Portugal, a University of London Royal Veterinary College researcher, told Discovery News that birds could be using three things to achieve their flying precision: "(1) vision – watching the bird in flight to get all the information they need, (2) feathers – sensing the changes in pressure, wind etc. through their flight feathers, and (3) positive feedback – i.e. they just fly around and when it feels easier/better they stay in that position."

The researchers determined that birds try to find "good air," meaning airflows (not just wind, but even the air created by other flapping wings) that minimize their energy expenditure and help them to get where they plan to go. Conversely, birds avoid regions of "bad air" that could work against them.

Many birds fly in distinctive V-formations. Portugal said, "The intricate mechanisms involved in V formation flight indicate remarkable awareness and ability of birds to respond to the wing path of nearby flock-mates. Birds in V formation seem to have developed complex phasing strategies to cope with the dynamic wakes (turbulent air) produced by flapping wings."

Military planes sometimes fly in what is known as an "echelon formation," which mirrors nearly the exact same flight formation of many birds. This particular bird version is a variation of the "V," only with a rounded edge.

The U.S. Navy's famous flight demonstration squadron The Blue Angels often flies in a trademark "diamond formation" once popularized by fighter-bomber pilots. In it, the pilots maintain an 18-inch wing tip to canopy separation. Birds can fly even more tightly together.

The term "murmuration" refers to a flock of starlings. These birds can create dramatic patterns in the sky, such as this one over marshlands near Tønder, Denmark. Other small birds, such as sandpipers, may also create what look to be dazzling aerial ballets in the sky as they fly en masse.

Even birds flying very close to land can do so in remarkable unison. Here, a formation was photographed as the birds flew over the beach at Camperduin in the Netherlands.

The classic "V" formation has all sorts of variations. In this case, three separate -- yet united -- groups create an arrow-like effect in the sky.

Alfred Hitchcock's classic horror film "The Birds" included many scenes where numerous birds blanketed the sky. Up close, these starlings look small and harmless but, as a huge murmuration, their power becomes evident.

From the earliest planes to those in design today, aircraft have been modeled after birds. It's no wonder. Every inch of this sleek northern bald ibis, snapped while flying over Tuscany, adds to the bird's flying prowess. Its 53-inch wingspan and powerful, synchronized wing beats must have captivated people in the ancient world too, since ancient Egyptians and other early cultures featured the birds prominently in their artwork and legends.