A team of researchers found that the most recent feathery common ancestor of modern birds lived approximately 95 million years ago in South America.
Planet Earth was hit by a six-mile wide (almost ten km) asteroid about 66 million years ago, in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, which killed off the non-avian dinosaurs. Researchers said that birds in South America survived the outcome of the impact and diversified quickly after the dinosaur extinction.
The modern birds from South America moved to other parts of the world – including Antarctica, New Zealand, Australia, and North America – where they diversified during global cooling periods.
In the study – published December 11 in the journal Science Advances – the researchers tried to find the most recent common ancestor of birds today. Some previous studies suggested that it lived sometime between 72 million and 170 million years ago.
Joel Cracraft, co-researcher of the study and a curator in the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, said that in terms of global distribution and species richness, modern birds are the most diverse group (when speaking of terrestrial vertebrates). There are only about 5,000 living species of mammals, compared with more than 10,000 species of birds.
According to Cracraft, there is a large gap in the bird fossil record, which makes it even more difficult to understand the birds’ large-scale evolutionary history.
During the Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago, birds started their evolutionary split from dinosaurs. The early birds still had long bony, tails; they sported teeth, and had fingers with claws, Daniel Ksepka, a curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, said.
Santiago Claramunt, co-researcher of the new study and a research associate in the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, said that they used data from modern birds that lived after the Cretaceous period.
The researchers analysed DNA from 230 bird species and looked for differences. With the results they built a family tree that goes back to the most recent feathery common ancestor of birds. That data was also paired with 130 bird fossils.
The findings of the study showed that the most recent ancestor of modern birds lived about 95 million years ago, according to the researches.
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