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Hummingbird and whippoorwill
Hummingbird and whippoorwill

Natural Selections: the evolution of birds

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Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager study the evolution of birds and discover that some unlikely species are very closely related.

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Stager said he recently read a study in the Journal of Science showing that the classical approach to bird classification is altered with genetic data. What you find out, when you consider common DNA across bird species, is that some birds end up in groups that appear incongruous.

"Its kind of another level of looking at stuff," he said. "It's looking at a family tree." The family tree Stager consulted was a big one, with 170 kinds of birds. He said most groupings make sense: the hawks in one group and storks in another.

"One of the big surprises for me was that hummingbirds are the in the same group as nightjars, whippoorwills, and frogmouths," Stager said. While one dines on flowers with a thin bill, the others have wide mouths for scooping bugs out of the night air. In the old system of classification, you never would have put them together.

How can this be? Stager said, "It actually fits the way Darwin said evolution would have worked.” Stager suggests that the hummingbirds escaped nighttime competition by evolving to consume flowers during the day.

Stager said that we forget the hummingbird has small feet and doesn't spend much time walking around - just like the nightjars and whippoorwills.

Another weird connection is that the closest relatives to the penguin, who never flies, is the albatross, who only flies.

The evolutionary connections suggest a narrative, and though we can't know for sure, it is still fun to think about it. 

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