The Amazing Diversity of Pigeons
Studying pigeon genetics could offer insight into how various traits have evolved in wild birds.
Free-living pigeons are so ubiquitous they often go unnoticed, yet the species is remarkably diverse. The 350-plus breeds display traits ranging from curly feathers to stumpy beaks. But similar-looking pigeons aren't necessarily closely related, reveals a study of 70 domestic breeds and two free-living populations. For instance, both English trumpeters and English pouters have feathers, not scales, on their feet, but they aren't genetically similar. Conversely, two owl pigeons, the short-beaked African and the Old German, are closely related (though the former has a plain head while the latter sports an impressive crest). Investigating the genetic origins of pigeon diversity could help shed light on how similar traits--vital for survival and reproduction--have evolved in wild birds. "It would be great to cross a toucan and an owl to try to figure out what controls beak development," says Michael Shapiro, a University of Utah biologist and lead author of the study. "Obviously you can't do that, but you can cross domestic pigeons."