Forest birds evolved early, DNA shows

July 10, 2008
Forest birds evolved early, DNA shows
A yellow warbler. Courtesy Mike Hopiak

( -- Evolution seems to have happened in fits and starts -- at least that's what the fossil record shows. From trilobites to pterodactyls, ammonites to Archaeopteryx, scientists find the same pattern: brief bursts of innovation in which a single species or branch on the tree of life turns into a cluster of new twigs, then lapses into long stretches ruled by the status quo.

The question is why. Is the fossil record incomplete -- are fossil beds just snapshots of a process that occurs at a steady pace throughout time? Or might changing environmental or geologic conditions alter the rate at which species arise?

"It's arguably one of the most fundamental questions in all of evolutionary biology," said Dan Rabosky, a graduate student at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and lead author of a new analysis of the problem, published online July 9 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. "How do species arise? Where does all this biodiversity that we see on Earth come from?"

Rabosky and co-author Irby Lovette, director of the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program at the Lab of Ornithology, used DNA analyses to look at 5 million years of evolution in 25 species of colorful North American songbirds known as wood warblers. They discovered that a flurry of species divergence occurred early on, with many species appearing in just the first million years.

Rabosky and Lovette developed a new mathematical model that attributed the pattern to the way closely related species divide up their environment. At first, with few relatives around to compete with, species can differentiate rapidly. But as the species list grows, competition becomes fiercer and leads to fewer opportunities for additions.

"Right after the dinosaurs went extinct, most people are aware that there was a huge explosion of mammal diversity," Rabosky said. "That extinction created lots of ecological 'space' -- opportunities for new species of mammals to take advantage of resources. On a much smaller scale of both space and time, this little group of warblers from North America might be playing out the same story."

The pattern of rapid diversification is well known to biologists -- they've even coined a name for the process: "adaptive radiation." But the best-known examples tend to involve geographic isolation: Darwin's finches of the Galapagos, anole lizards of the Caribbean and the marvelously colorful cichlid fishes of Africa's inland lakes.

"What's interesting is that this happened on a continent where it's ecologically much more complex than an island," Rabosky said. "You've got lots of competitors. Clearly, lots of other birds were already here, eating insects and probably doing what warblers do now."

Rabosky and Lovette chose to study the warbler genus Dendroica and to use DNA analyses because they needed a detailed picture of the genetic relationships among the 25 species -- a level of information that fossils simply can't provide. Those details let them reconstruct, species by species, the chronological order in which new species appeared.

And besides, 4-inch-long, half-ounce forest birds don't leave much of a fossil record.

"In fact," Rabosky said, "the vast majority of biodiversity on this planet that we need to explain doesn't have a fossil record. But just by using species that are alive today and looking at their DNA, we can see the signal of an early explosion of species millions of years ago."

Hugh Powell is a staff writer at Cornell's Lab of Ornithology.

Source: Cornell University

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not rated yet Jul 11, 2008
Anyone care to speculate on the reason behind the
"brief bursts of innovation"?
1 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2008
Yes, Bob. It sounds very much like abrupt appearance followed by minor variation - which is what The Alternative to Darwinism states.
"Brief bursts of innovation" is a vague & imprecise statement - esp. in light of what 4 Darwinists said in '89: "Natural selection can act only on those biological properties that already exist; it cannot create properties in order to meet adaptational needs" Noble, et al.
Life appears abruptly in the f.r. in a very undarwinian manner. See Figures 5-6 & 19-10 of Colbert's 5th edition.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 30, 2008
Yes Bob,

Evolution occurs constantly but has little effect without availability. Diversification requires vacancies of competition.

In cases of invasion of one species into new territory - if that species survives more easily in that territory it is basically the same as that species entering virgin territory.

Evolution therefore shows the illusion of dramatic change over short period of time while opportunity exists - once opportunity no longer exists then all those variations that are continually occurring fail to find fertile footholds.

Darwin triumphs as usual. A great many scientists get bogged down in inconsequential details that are off-the-track but hey they are only human.

Whenever life becomes too easy we will find species will diversify. True many people consider it the challenge of overcoming a new environment but that is not the case. Diversification occurs when there is more than one way of successful resolution to a problem.

That is the driving force of evolution and it is the engine behind the entire animal kingdom. So you put one species into a location where life is easy and it will gradually develop variations on a theme which will continue until you end up with extremely diverse range of creatures.

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