A Yale-led scientific team has produced the most comprehensive family tree for birds to date, connecting all living bird species — nearly 10,000 in total — and revealing surprising new details about their evolutionary history and its geographic context.
Analysis of the family tree shows when and where birds diversified — and that birds’ diversification rate has increased over the last 50 million years, challenging the conventional wisdom of biodiversity experts.
“It’s the first time that we have — for such a large group of species and with such a high degree of confidence — the full global picture of diversification in time and space,” said biologist Walter Jetz of Yale, lead author of the team’s research paper, published Oct. 31 online in the journal Nature.
He continued: “The research highlights how heterogeneously fast diversifying species groups are distributed throughout the family tree and over geographic space. Many parts of the globe have seen a variety of species groups diversify rapidly and recently. All this leads to a diversification rate in birds that has been increasing over the past 50 million years.”
The researchers relied heavily on fossil and DNA data, combining them with geographical information to produce the exhaustive family tree, which includes 9,993 species known to be alive now.
“The current zeitgeist in biodiversity science is that the world can fill up quickly,” says biologist and co-author Arne Mooers of Simon Fraser University in Canada. “A new distinctive group, like bumblebees or tunafish, first evolves, and, if conditions are right, it quickly radiates to produce a large number of species. These species fill up all the available niches, and then there is nowhere to go. Extinction catches up, and things begin to slow down or stall. For birds the pattern is the opposite: Speciation is actually speeding up, not slowing down.”
The researchers attribute the growing rate of avian diversity to an abundance of group-specific adaptations. They hypothesize that the evolution of physical or behavioral innovations in certain groups, combined with the opening of new habitats, has enabled repeated bursts of diversification. Another likely factor has been birds’ exceptional mobility, researchers said, which time and again has allowed them to colonize new regions and exploit novel ecological opportunities.
In their analysis, the researchers also expose significant geographic differences in diversification rates. They are higher in the Western Hemisphere than in the Eastern, and higher on islands than mainlands. But surprisingly, they said, there is little difference in rates between the tropics and high latitudes. Regions of especially intense recent diversification include northern North American and Eurasia and southern South America.
“This was one of the big surprises,” Jetz said. “For a long time biologists have thought that the vast diversity of tropical species must at least partly be due to greater rates of net species production there. For birds we find no support for this, and groups with fast and slow diversification appear to occur there as much as in the high latitudes. Instead, the answer may lie in the tropics’ older age, leading to a greater accumulation of species over time. Global phylogenies like ours will allow further tests of this and other basic hypotheses about life on Earth.”
Other authors are G.H. Thomas of the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom; J.B. Joy of Simon Fraser University in Canada; and K. Hartmann of the University of Tasmania in Australia.
The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Natural Environment Research Council (U.K), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Simon Fraser University, and the Yale Institute of Biospheric Studies.