ScienceShot: High-Performance Pigeons Have a Dirty Little Secret

The high-stakes world of domestic pigeon breeding is reflected in its finely tuned racers and the outrageous plumage of its show birds. Now, new research shows surprising connections between very different-looking breeds, as well as evidence of liaisons between racing pigeons and feral populations of the motley city pigeon. In a study published today in Current Biology, researchers propose a family tree for domestic pigeon breeds. Analyzing repeating sequences of DNA called microsatellites, the scientists were able to figure out that the 70 pigeon breeds they studied fell into two groups. Pigeons with fantails, manes, and exaggerated crops (outgrowths of the esophagus) were closely related, while the acrobatic breeds, homing pigeons, and breeds with the smallest and largest beaks filled out the second group. The scientists also found that wayward racing pigeons were breeding with feral populations. The researchers will use this web of relatedness to help them answer broader questions on how changes in an organism's genetic blueprint give rise to physical traits like color or the size of limbs. Domestic pigeons are ideally suited for this kind of study, the scientists write, because they are incredibly diverse and are still able to interbreed.

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