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 with human genomes, and historical population decline.

A project of this scope is only possible because of ornithologists who built, maintain, and continue to grow research collections of bird specimens. One of our goals in this project is to collect genomic data from DNA samples that have an associated voucher specimen in a research collection. This makes the OpenWings study repeatable, allows verification of taxonomic identification, and facilitates studies interested in drawing connections between genotype and phenotype. Numerous initiatives to expand global data layers for birds, including species data on demography and abundance (e.g., eBird), vocalizations and behavior (e.g., Macaulay Library and xeno-canto), and bill shape and plumage (e.g., Mark My Bird) are resources that will help remove long-standing obstacles to understanding the connection between genotypes and phenotypes. These resources will also ensure that birds remain flagship species for conservation planning and that birds are useful as indicators of species response to climate change.

The fundamental and missing piece of this otherwise powerful comparative biology toolkit is an accurate and complete avian phylogeny. The overarching goal of the OpenWings Project is to fill this gap by producing:

a complete phylogeny for all 10,560 bird species that will provide a unifying framework for understanding the origins and maintenance of avian diversity… as well as serving as a case study of the benefits and challenges of sampling all species in a major clade

We plan to accomplish our goals by collecting new genomic data from >8,000 individual bird tissues that we have identified in museum collections around the world and integrating these data with existing, compatible data sets to infer a phylogeny of the roughly 10,560 bird species. Perhaps more importantly, we will be making these data openly available to other researchers immediately after we generate and quality-control them.

The OpenWings Project is a collaborative research project, led by scientists from the American Museum of Natural History, Bruce Museum, Bell Museum of Natural History, KU Biodiversity Institute and Museum of Natural Science, Louisiana State University, Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science, University of Florida, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, and the United States Geological Survey (USGS Biological Survey Unit).

This blog will be one way that we use to let everyone know about our work, and we plan to follow an open science model during the duration of this project – providing updates on project planning, project decisions, project organization, data collection, data analysis (and computer programs to analyze data), as well as our OpenWings web-server, which we will use to provide the community with the data that we generate.

We are really excited about OpenWings, and we hope that you are too!


Brian Smith, Brant Faircloth, Dan Ksepka, Ed Braun, Keith Barker, Rebecca Kimball, Rob Moyle, Robb Brumfield, and Terry Chesser.