The goal of the OpenWings Project is to understand the evolutionary history of and evolutionary relationships among birds.

Extracting genetic material from historical museum specimens

Through collaborative efforts of researchers involved in the OpenWings Project, we have begun sampling voucher specimens at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), one of the largest collections of avian specimens in the world. The collection’s extensive coverage across species and geography will serve as one of the primary resources for completing an all bird species evolutionary tree. Approximately 3,000 plus bird species are lacking modern genetic material (i.e., frozen tissue samples). The species that do not have tissue samples include extinct and vulnerable species, as well as species found in areas that are geographically difficult to access. To fill in these sampling gaps across the avian tree of life, we are using historical museum specimens that are up to 100+ years old. To obtain historical genetic material, we cut small sections of skin from the toe pads of museum specimens, which contain DNA that will be isolated in a molecular laboratory. To encourage consistency and increase efficiency, we designed a mobile station for processing specimens that can readily move through the hundreds of rows and multiple floors of specimens at the AMNH. During specimen processing we image each bird and record metadata to have a connection between our […]

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Fossils reveal convergent beak evolution in perching birds

In our quest to complete a phylogeny for all living birds, extinct species play a big role as well. Fossils provide calibrations to date the tree. But, they also provide sometimes unexpected insight into how each group of birds evolved, including were they originated and how they changed over time. As our team has advanced our understanding of extant passerine (perching bird) phylogeny, we have also been delving into the surprising past of this hyper-diverse group. Modern passerines include many familiar backyard birds such as sparrows, chickadees, and crows – and with over 6000 extant species represent more than half of present day bird diversity. Open Wings paleontologist Daniel Ksepka, working with colleagues Lance Grande of the Field Museum and Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Research Institute, recently identified two new extinct bird species that were the first to evolve finch-like beaks. Fossils of the new species, named Eofringillirostrum boudreauxi and Eofringillirostrum parvulum, were discovered in Wyoming and Germany. The exquisite fossils date to 50 million years ago, a time when both regions were covered by subtropical forests. Despite their dominance of many modern ecosystems, passerines have a very sparse fossil record. The two Eofringillirostrum species appear to have been […]

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Organizing the sampling

Although it’s been a little over a year since our last post, we’ve been busy. As I noted in the introductory post, the goal of OpenWings is to generate a time-calibrated phylogeny for all bird species using vouchered museum specimens. The important word here being “vouchered”. A voucher or voucher specimen is a preserved organism that represents the animal used in a study (or studies). The voucher can be a source of phenotypic or genetic data (or both).  Because vouchers are housed in museums, they provide a resilient, tangible reference that can be used to confirm (or define) the identity of a species, subspecies, or population. Vouchered specimens are important because they allow researchers to deal with problems like misidentification, incorrect or changing taxonomy, and differences in species concepts.  Vouchered specimens can also provide a temporal record of how species, subspecies, and populations have changed over time —  provided sufficient specimens have been collected over the intervals of interest. Vouchered specimens can also be type specimens. One of the hurdles for a project like OpenWings is identifying vouchered specimens from which we can collect genetic data and doing that across a number of ornithological collections throughout the United States and the rest of […]

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Introducing the OpenWings Project

We are incredibly pleased to announce the beginning of the OpenWings Project – a research project supported by the National Science Foundation through the Systematics and Biodiversity Science Cluster of the Division of Environmental Biology. At its heart, the OpenWings project is all about understanding the evolutionary history of and evolutionary relationships among birds. Birds, or “Class Aves”, comprise the only extant lineage of theropod dinosaurs, are the single most diverse clade of amniotes, and include at least one lineage that underwent a remarkably rapid radiation (Neoaves; see Jarvis et al. 2014). Birds occur in almost every terrestrial environment, from the snow line to lowland rain forests and from perpetually wet cloud forests to virtually rainless deserts. Birds are amazing. Birds are also a major source of public engagement – bird-watching in 2011 (alone) generated $107 billion in US economic output. On the scientific side of things, the study of birds (also known as ornithology) has led to advancements in numerous scientific fields. Birds are also emerging as a model for comparative biology – draft genomes of over fifty avian species are now available, and this resource is yielding insights into a diversity of topics including genomic innovations, trait loss, adaptation, convergence […]

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