(ORDO NEWS) — An international team of 40 researchers analyzed the genomes – a complete set of DNA – from all living and recently extinct penguin species and combined them with the fossil record to gain new insights into key events in the evolution of these amazing birds.
Although we usually think of penguins as inhabitants of the polar ice, hunting for fish in the cold sea and fleeing from leopard seals, in fact, the initial stages of the evolution of these birds, which began about 60 million years ago, took place in warmer conditions similar to conditions in South Africa or the Galapagos Islands.
Despite their excellent adaptability, today’s penguins have been threatened with extinction by global climate change, so a new study of the evolutionary history of these birds aims to assess how penguin numbers have risen or fallen in response to past climate change and how they may change in the future.
The study showed that the evolution of penguins proceeded under the influence of global climatic fluctuations between cold and warm periods.
By studying the genomes of modern species of these birds, scientists were able to track when the population size was minimal and when it increased, linking this to periods of adverse and favorable environmental conditions, respectively.
Let’s say when the temperature on the planet dropped, the penguins colonized the warmer waters in the north, and when it warmed up, they returned back to the South Pole to stay within their temperature optimum all the time.
The authors of the work also identified a set of genes that underlie some of the adaptations that allowed penguins to spread throughout the southern hemisphere. These adaptations include features of thermoregulation, deep diving abilities, fairly acute underwater vision, and optimal body size.
The researchers found that penguins evolved very slowly compared to other birds, but many of their key aquatic traits originated early in development, well before the formation of the Antarctic ice sheet.
The study was carried out as part of the huge international Bird Genome 10K project , the goal of which is to sequence the genome of all living bird species.
The data obtained will help scientists not only to fix the genetic material of these animals, among which there are many endangered species, but also, possibly, to find ways to save them, including through the study of their evolutionary history.
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