In 1855, Charles Darwin took up a new hobby. He started raising pigeons.

In the garden of his country estate, Darwin built a dovecote. He filled it with birds he bought in London from pigeon breeders. He favored the fanciest breeds — pouters, carriers, barbs, fantails, short-faced tumblers and many more.

“The diversity of the breeds is something astonishing,” he wrote a few years later in “On the Origin of Species” — a work greatly informed by his experiments with the birds.

Pigeon breeding, Darwin argued, was an analogy for what happened in the wild. Nature played the part of the fancier, selecting which individuals would be able to reproduce. Natural selection might work more slowly than human breeders, but it had far more time to produce the diversity of life around us.

Yet to later generations of biologists, pigeons were of little more interest than they are to, say, New Yorkers. Attention shifted to other species, like fruit flies and E. coli.

Now Michael D. Shapiro, a biologist at the University of Utah, is returning pigeons to the spotlight.

In an article published online by the journal Science, an international team of scientists led by Dr. Shapiro reports that it has delved into a source of information Darwin didn’t even know about: the pigeon genome. So far, they have sequenced the DNA of 40 breeds, seeking to pinpoint the mutations that produced their different forms.

The scientists are following Darwin’s example by using the birds to find clues to the way evolution works in general. They are particularly interested in the mutations that produce radically new kinds of anatomy.

“Pigeons are an ideal way to look at these things,” Dr. Shapiro said.

The new work supports Darwin’s original claim that all pigeon breeds descend from the rock pigeon, whose range stretched from Europe to North Africa and east into Asia.

“It’s a brilliant bit of investigative science, the type of research that hopefully will come to define the genomic era,” said Beth Shapiro (no relation to Michael), an evolutionary molecular biologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Read more at NYT.

Published On: February 4, 2013

Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer is a columnist for the New York Times, where his “Matter” column appears every Thursday in the Science Times. He began his career at Discover, where he served for four years as a senior editor. Since then, he has written for a wide range of publications, including National Geographic, The Atlantic, Wired, and Scientific American. He is a three-time winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Kavli Journalism Award, and in 2007 he won the National Academies Communication Award. Zimmer has written a dozen books, including Parasite Rex and Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea. He appears frequently on Radiolab and teaches writing at Yale.

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