At unprecedented levels of difficulty involving highly biodiverse and continent-sized landscapes, scientists have successfully tested their ability to identify and DNA "barcode" entire assemblages of species -- the prelude to a genetic portrait of all animal life on Earth.
Revealing their results in the UK journal Molecular Ecology Notes, they report having assembled a genetic portrait of birdlife in the U.S. and Canada, and announce the startling discovery of 15 new genetically distinct species, nearly indistinguishable to human eyes and ears and consequently overlooked in centuries of bird studies.
The barcoders also successfully logged the DNA attributes of 87 bat species of Guyana and reveal six new species, characterized by unique genetic make-up. One of the new species, a look-alike of Trachops cirrhosus, feasts on frogs.
As well, the scientists report that 14 pairs of North American bird species with separate identities are in fact DNA twins, two trios of bird species are DNA triplets, and no less than eight gull species are virtually DNA identical.
The complementary papers describing the bird and bat initiatives were authored by researchers from Guelph, Ottawa and Toronto, Canada, and from New York City and Washington D.C., USA.
The bird researchers obtained DNA from "voucher" specimens in museums, augmented by samples sent in by scores of people. In all, more than 2,500 specimens were barcoded.
The DNA portrait of 643 bird species, from the Arctic tundra to the temperate woodlands to the Florida Keys, represents 93 percent of 690 known breeding species in the U.S. and Canada. Work continues to collect DNA of the remaining 47 listed North American species, as well as several more considered extinct, specimens of which exist in museums.
The work builds on 2004 research which involved only 260 bird species, criticized at the time as too narrow geographically