At first glance, the elegant flamingowith its graceful long legs and delicate, arched neckseems to have little in common with the duck-like grebe (below). But according to two new studies published in the July 7 issue of the Journal of the Royal Society, these birds have more in common with each other than with any otherat least genetically speaking.
grebe
Image: PENN STATE

"We knew people might have a hard time accepting these results so we decided to publish our two studies together in the same paper because the weight of the combined evidence is quite strong," Blair Hedges, an evolutionary biologist at the Pennsylvania State University, says. To investigate how closely the two species are related, Hedges' team compared the actual sequence of base pairs in the birds' DNA. The other team, led by John Kirsch, director of the Zoological Museum at the University of Wisconsin, conducted DNA/DNA hybridization to perform an overall comparison of the two species' entire genomes.

flamingo
Image: PENN STATE

"We never imagined the flamingo and the grebe would turn out to be closest relatives, and were so surprised by this outcome that we did additional examinations using different sources of flamingo and grebe genetic material and obtained the same results," Hedges says. One implication of this study is that physical features such as the flamingo's long legs probably didn't evolve only once, but evolved separately in different families of birds. "A lot of people may have trouble believing the results from these genetic studies for a while, but they carry a lot of weight because we have so much data," Hedges adds. "What I like about the way science works is that eventually the truth will win."