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New Research Reveals The Parrot-Passerine Link

Retroposons, or "jumping genes" reveal that parrots and passerines had a common ancestor 30 million years earlier than previously thought.

By Jessica Pineda
Posted: January 16, 2012, 5:30 p.m. PST

Researchers studied the retroposons in kea parrots and zebra finches

Researchers in Germany have shown that parrots are the closest living relative of passerines (songbirds), with a common ancestor that lived 30 million years earlier than was previously thought. In their paper, “Mesozoic retroposons reveal parrots as the closest living relatives of passerine birds” published in the scientific journal “Nature,” researchers Alexander Suh, Martin Paus, Martin Kiefmann, Gennady Churakov, Franziska Anni Franke, Jürgen Brosius, Jan Ole Kriegs and Jürgen Schmitz studied what they called “jumping genes” or retroposons.

“Most people don’t know [that] most organisms — including us and birds — have retroposons, or jumping genes, in their genome,” Suh said. “These jumping genes ‘jump’ — they copy themselves, and these copies are inserted in random places in the genome. If you look at the ancestor of parrots and passerines, [their common ancestor] lived 70 million years ago, [and] in this bird, one jumping gene dispersed some copies in the genome. Each of these copies that were inserted at that time [were] inherited by all the species that stemmed from this ancestor species.” 

Suh explained that these jumping genes were inherited by parrots and passerines, and not by other birds, such as cuckoos or woodpeckers. This research confirms a 2008 study by the Tree-of-Life Research Program, which, using DNA sequencing, proposed that parrots and passerines were closely related. Suh’s research with retroposons adds further evidence to this theory.

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