Flamingo and Grebe May Be Sister Species

Hedges had wondered the same thing about his own work, so he contacted Kirsch, who is now a professor of zoology and director of the Zoological Museum at the University of Wisconsin, where he has continued his research.

Hedges figured no one would believe just one of them. But there is strength in numbers, and since the two scientists had used different techniques, and different samples, and arrived at the same conclusion, it would be a bit harder to sweep the findings away.

Kirsch's lab used a technique called "DNA/DNA hybridization," which Sibley had pioneered. This technique compares all the genetic material contained in the DNA molecules of different species to determine the degree of genetic similarity. Hedges' lab used a technique called "DNA sequencing," which targets specific genes that carry the codes for inherited traits.

While the two techniques are quite different, the results were the same: the flamingo's sister is a grebe.

Webbed Feet Don't Make Relatives

The research also suggests that some birds that have been grouped together because of similar characteristics actually evolved at very different times. All birds with webbed feet, for example, did not inherit that trait from a single evolutionary event. The webbing that allows some birds to swim so effectively "appeared more than once" in the evolutionary history of aquatic birds, Hedges says.

The fact that an event that was thought to have occurred only once actually happened over and over again shows just how adaptable aquatic birds are, he adds, and it indicates that evolution could have moved along at a somewhat faster pace than had been thought.

If all of this is confirmed — and DNA research on aquatic birds is a very immature field — then many birds that look so much alike have erroneously been assigned to the wrong families. Hedges says it will take years to sort all of this out, and probably even longer to convince ornithologists who have become accustomed to seeing the world as it appears to be.

But just because it looks like a duck doesn't necessarily mean it's a duck.

Genetics is reshaping our view of just about everything these days. Nothing, it seems, is what it seems like on the surface. That's exciting, and a bit scary.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a lowly grebe who has just learned that you're very much like the beauty on the beach.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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