In Order, First To Last

Ostriches are oldest, closest to the dinosaurs (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 February 2020

Which bird is closest to the dinosaurs? Which one is the newest species? The answer has changed in the last 30 years.

The taxonomic order of birds used to be rather stable. North American field guides, listed in evolutionary order from oldest to newest, had loons at the beginning and sparrows at the end. Then in 1991 everything changed.

Scientists began using DNA sequencing to see who’s related to whom. They learned that ducks and geese are older than loons, loons are related to penguins, falcons are related to parrots (not hawks), and grosbeaks are newer than sparrows.

The phylogenomic supertree below, current to July 2019, shows the new relationships in a clockwise spiral from the center. The first bird, closest to the dinosaurs, is the common ostrich (Struthio camelus), photo at top.

Phylogenomic supertree of birds, a clockwise spiral from oldest to newest (image from MDPI, July 2019)

The last and newest bird is the yellow-shouldered grosbeak (Parkerthraustes humeralis(*)), native to western Amazonia in South America.

Yellow-shouldered grosbeak, the ‘newest’ bird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As of February 2020 there are 10,928 species on the worldwide taxonomic checklist of birds. Regional checklists show a subset of birds, limited by geographical or political boundaries, so the first and last birds vary by checklist:

First and last in Pennsylvania: Black-bellied whistling duck and dickcissel (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Additional DNA sequencing will change the lists over and over again.

I wonder who will be first and last in 2050.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, phylogenomic supertree from MDPI; click on the captions to see the originals)

p.s. (*) DNA sequencing gave the yellow-shouldered grosbeak a new genus — Parkerthraustis — named for the late Theodore A. “Ted” Parker III, a superb field ornithologist who died in a plane crash in Ecuador in 1993, age 40.

p.s.2. Click here to see a more detailed phylogenetic tree (in 2012 by University of New South Wales).

p.s.3. Click here to see the phylogenetic list.

3 thoughts on “In Order, First To Last

  1. This is unrelated to this topic, but I wasn’t sure where else to reach out. I just read that very extensive work will be beginning on the I-79 bridge crossing the Ohio River at Glenfield/Neville Island/Robinson Twp. The date published to begin is March 26. Is there still a peregrine falcon best on that bridge? How would this affect that nest?

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