A team of scientists, including researchers from the California Academy of Sciences, has reconstructed a detailed "tree of life" for turtles. The specifics of how turtles are related--to one another, to other reptiles, and even to dinosaurs--have been hotly debated for decades. Next-generation sequencing technologies in Academy labs have generated unprecedented amounts of genetic information for a thrilling new look at turtles' evolutionary history. These high-tech lab methods have revolutionized the way scientists explore species origins and evolutionary relationships, and provide a strong foundation for future looks into Earth's fossil record. Research results, which were published online on November 4, 2014 in an open-access article in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, describe how a new genetic sequencing technique called Ultra Conserved Elements (UCE) reveals turtles' closest relatives across the animal kingdom. The new genetic tree uses an enormous amount of data to refute the notion that turtles are most closely related to lizards and snakes. Instead, authors place turtles in the newly named group "Archelosauria" with their closest relatives being birds, crocodiles, and dinosaurs. Scientists suspect the new group will be the largest group of vertebrates to ever receive a new scientific name. The UCE technique used in high-tech labs allowed scientists to move beyond years of speculation and place the Archelosauria group in its rightful place on the reptile tree of life. UCE has been available since 2012, yet scientists are just beginning to tap its potential for generating enormous amounts of genetic data across vertebrates.
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