I love to do research - there is just so much out there to discover!
For the last couple of days I’ve been researching information for an upcoming scout program about birds. Now, I like birds as much as the next guy, and I can hold my own in some birding circles, but I am not a birder - sparrows and warblers are probably always going to throw me. However, ask me about bird anatomy and adaptations (feet, wings, feathers, beaks), and I’ve got you covered.
Part of this program requires that the scouts learn how to use a field guide. No problem, said I, field guides are easy enough to navigate. Probably the most confusing part for novices is trying to figure out how the book is arranged. It’s not alphabetical, and, with a few exceptions, it’s not by color. Most bird field guides are arranged by taxonomic sequence: birds that are related to each other are grouped together, and the “oldest” birds are in the front of the book, with the “youngest” birds bringing up the rear, evolutionarily speaking.
Then why is it, I asked myself a few years ago, that loons are no longer in the front? Loons used to be considered the oldest of the birds. I did not pursue an answer at that time, but today, I discovered why.
When the first field guides were assembled, taxonomic science was based primarily on fossil records. Without a time machine, this is all we had to go on to try to figure out where everything came from and how species developed. Today, however, we have DNA and genetic sequencing…and boy has that turned up some very interesting results.
For example, I bet you thought falcons were raptors! Am I right? Yes, we all grew up putting hawks, eagles and falcons together as strong-taloned, curved-beaked, powerful birds of prey known as raptors. Well, after they did some genetic sequencing on these birds, they discovered that falcons are not related to hawks and eagles after all; they are more closely related to …PARROTS! Bet you didn’t see that one coming!
Another example: nightjars, those long-winged, fringe-mouthed, night-time foragers, are closely related to hummingbirds (or, perhaps more accurately, hummers are related to nightjars, since nightjars are “older” and hummers are, evolutionarily speaking, johnny-come-latelies).
That is one of the things we can probably all count on: the only constant in life is change. And just when you think you have something nailed down, someone will discover something new about it and possibly turn it all on its head.
This is not a bad thing, and it certainly doesn’t mean science is bogus. Nope - science is predicated on change. We draw conclusions based on the evidence we have. When new evidence turns up, we may have to modify our suppositions…or perhaps it verifies what we already thought. Either way, the search for “the truth” continues and with each new discovery, we learn a bit more about the life all around us.
Here’s hoping 2019 is a year full of discovery and positive changes for you and yours. And I hope we’ll see you out on the trails soon
Taxonomic Tree of Life - Wikipedia