Dr. David Winkler, finds molecules yield “delicious surprises” in this YouTube Video on bird families

Updated December 27, 2021
with several updates to the bird subset of the LRT (Fig. 3).

Here’s a YouTube video lecture
about the genetic reclassification of birds entitled: Winkler, Bird Families (click to view)

Figure 1. Still from Winkler, Bird Families, a lecture by Dr. David Winkler. See text link above.

Dr. Winkler was pleased to use molecules
in his phylogeny to avoid the possibility that his new book would be “totally out-of-date by the time it got printed”. That’s ironic because, according to the LRT, deep time studies based on molecules are invalid too often to be trusted. And yes, they must be ‘trusted’ because too often they defy the clear logic of trait analysis.

Winkler was pleased to note
that three DNA studies produced congruent results and “large amounts of consensus, not entirely consensus, but very close.” Dr. Winkler reports, “All this new molecular data has produced some wonderful new insights, and a lot of them are really neat surprises.”

Surprise is not the word you want to use when putting together a puzzle that involves a gradual accumulation of traits from beginning to end and at every twig in between. Rather it should make sense in every way: morphologically, chronologically, geographically, etc. There should be no surprises. In the large reptile tree (LRT, 1890+ taxa; subset Fig. 3), which is based on traits, evolution is a gradual thing. No surprises.

Figure 2. Slide from Dr. Winkler’s talk. These two are not sisters in the LRT. Both have closer relatives and are separated by other taxa.

According to molecules, Dr. Winkler reports,
Rhynochetos (the kagu) and Eurypyga (the sun bittern, Fig. 2), are sister taxa. According to the LRT, these two are close, but separated by rails. Eurypgya is closer to Grus, the crane, based on traits. Rhynochetos is closer to the scrubfowl, Megapodius (Fig. 3, and all four appear near the top of the blue clade).

We looked at bird DNA studies
earlier when another bird expert, Richard Prum trusted genes that nested flamingos with grebes and other odd pairings.

Figure 2. Subset of the LRT focusing on birds. This is an update from prior iterations.
Figure 3. Subset of the LRT focusing on birds. This is an update from prior iterations.

Please notice how often
Dr. Winkler is “surprised” at relationships revealed through DNA. That’s what happens when you choose a method guaranteed to deliver false positives.

Figure 4. Slide from Dr. Winkler’s talk nesting unrelated woodpeckers (at bottom) with tourcans and barbets, while omitting related hornbills.

Next on Dr. Winkler’s comparison list: toucans and barbets
(Fig. 4). In the LRT (subset Fig. 3), toucans (Pteroglossus) do nest with barbets (Psilopogon), but woodpeckers (like Melanerpes) nest with other trunk walkers and trunk tappers (like Sitta). Winkler omits tourcan + barbet trait-related hornbills (Buceros) and hamerkops (Scopus).

According to Winkler,
the fact that toucans nest in the middle of the barbets “upsets systematists” because they want “natural groups” or monophyletic clades. If that’s what they want, use traits, not genes.

Winkler confesses,
he wants a set of distinctive features (traits) so the studients can tell birds and bird families apart. That tells us Winkler bases his work on preferences, not data. He confesses,“What guides the preference is, can I teach it?” Though often helpful, that’s not the right way to teach phylogenetics. That’s called “Pulling a Larry Martin”, something Winkler did when he noticed both sun bitterns and kagus had striped primary feathers. Winker should be asking, “What does the entire skeleton tell us compared to hundreds of other skeletons?” Imagine paying a university thousands in tuition to learn ornithology and all you get is this preference-laden lecture.

Winkler discusses
the albatross (Diomedea) and the storm petrel (Oceanodroma), neither of which have yet made it into the LRT. What he says about them is a little disturbing, “I think most people would not be comfortable calling a wandering albatross an enormous storm petrel.”

In science, we should not spend any time considering the comfort level of most people – unless we’re doing it only for the money and we need to sell more seats. Feelings should not be a factor in paleontology or taxonomy. We’ve already seen how feelings can interfere with great minds.

Winkler continues,
“If we want these as a separate family…”

What we ‘want‘ has nothing to do with what Nature did. Always run an analysis to determine what Nature did. That way you can back up your argument with more than ‘feelings’ and ‘considerations’ and ‘peer-group pressures‘.

Winkler continues,
“We do split, at times, and we do lump, at times, and every time, it’s kind of a judgement call.”

No! No! No! Personal preference, cherry-picking and eyeballing is not good science. Let the software create the tree. If I was a student at Winkler’s university (= Cornell, Ithaca, NY, USA), I’d be heading for the door. Be glad that you are not expected to get a good grade by repeating Dr. Winkler’s lectures in Dr. Winkler’s tests.

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