There are more than 10,000 species of living, breathing dinosaurs on Earth today. It’s just that we call them birds. And while a chicken might seem like a measly ancestor for the enormous T-rex, modern birds can teach us a lot about dinosaur evolution. A huge genome sequencing project, which recently culminated in the publication of nearly 50 genome sequences and the most accurate tree of bird evolution to date, has further blurred the line between bird and dinosaur. Spurring a plethora of studies into the origins of our modern feathered, singing friends, the December 2014 edition of Science taught us that the transition from dinosaurs to birds was gradual and began long before the Dinosaurs were gone. It taught us that it involved multiple independent origins of bird song, a characteristic that now dominates around 10% of the genome. And it taught us that the evolution of flight was facilitated by new genes and new gene regulation, but also by the loss of genes.
Making a Chicken from a T-Rex
Last October, the Therapod Working Group constructed a new phylogeny (family tree) for Dinosaurs, based on morphological characteristics measured in fossil remains of over 150 different species. The new tree revealed fascinating insights into the nature and pace of avian evolution.
When you design many objects that perform similar tasks, the logical strategy is to reuse the same design, perhaps with small modifications, for each object. There would be little point in coming up with a new design every time, right!? In nature, however, there are many species that do similar things but have arrived at their method through different designs. This is known as convergent evolution.
Intelligent design, and decent by modification, predict different patterns of similarities and differences between species. Evolutionary theory, which places all living things on a tree of relatedness, leads us to expect that species that are more closely related to each other should tend to be more similar. This is because they have both evolved from a recent ancestor. This ancestor has been ‘modified’ in various ways by natural selection to produce the two (or more) daughter species, but with a shared starting point for these modifications, we expect a fairly similar outcome. Traits that are shared between species due to shared ancestry are known as homologies. Homology has been the basis for determining relatedness between species (phylogeny) for hundreds of years. However, as early taxonomists noted, there are some occasions when species share traits despite the lack of a recent common ancestor. Often these species have reached a similar solution to a shared problem, despite being only very distantly related. This is known as convergence, and the more we look for it in nature, the more we find.