(Photo : Mike Shapiro/University of Utah)
Most of us find them incredibly annoying and quite filthy, but rock pigeons (more commonly known as the pigeon) carry a rich history within their feathers. Some of them sport a unique head crest, and a new first-of-its-kind study has traced back the roots of this quite-obvious characteristic.
"We identified the gene EphB2 as a strong candidate for the derived head crest phenotype shared by numerous breeds, an important trait in mate selection in many avian species. We also found evidence that this trait evolved just once and spread throughout the species, and that the crest originates early in development by the localized molecular reversal of feather bud polarity," wrote the scientists in their study published in the journal Science.
While a pigeon isn't the first bird that comes to mind when thinking of a ground-breaking genetic study, they are a stepping stone to understanding more about avian traits, which are still more enigmatic to researchers than other types of animal traits.
"We know much more about genetic variation in fish and in mammals than we know about birds," said Michael Shapiro, lead author of the study, from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
The study began in 2008, in Utah, where there is an incredibly active pigeon breeder population. Throughout the study, the researchers also realized that certain pigeons, those with short beaks, can be traced back to the Middle East where there was an active pigeon culture.
"There are accounts from a time of Emperor Akbar in India that verify there were pigeons being exchanged between those two regions - India and Iran - or at least the Middle East," Shapiro said during a phone interview to LiveScience. "Akbar was apparently getting gifts of pigeons."
They hope to continue their journey into avian genetics by trying to pinpoint what makes some pigeons take a tumble midair.