Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Genetics Behind Pigeon Backflips

Did you know that at least 5 genes are involved in making parlor roller pigeons do backflips?

Parlor Roller Homing Pigeons - aka Keşpir Güvercin 4949 | Flickr

Tumbler pigeons, selectively bred for their tumbling behavior, exhibit intermittent somersaulting episodes during flight, with some birds known as rollers showing multiple somersaults. While they typically regain control quickly, collisions during tumbling can lead to severe injuries or fatalities, termed as "rolldown" by owners. 

The Parlor tumbler breed is an extreme case where birds tumble as soon as they try to fly.In this breed, selection for tumbling has resulted in strains that can no longer fly, but which tumble as soon as they intend to take wing. 

Atoosa Samni, a student at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, joined Micheal Shapiro’s lab to investigate the phenomenon of why some pigeons (Columba livia) do backward somersaults. 

 Many Persian poems say the pigeons perform the acrobatics because the birds are happy, but Samani says the truth is darker. “This is definitely a movement disorder, and it does not have any good aspects to it,” she says. The disorder is progressive, appearing soon after hatching and gradually getting worse until the birds can’t fly.

Samani is homing in on the genes behind the backflips. At least five genes are involved in the behavior, she reported March 7 at the Allied Genetics Conference in National Harbor, Md.

Samani's research on pigeon tumbling reveals it to be a recessive trait, confirmed by breeding experiments. By breeding racing Homer pigeons with parlor rollers; none of the hybrid offspring rolled. Samani revealed when hybrid birds were bred together, about 4 out of 10 of the offspring did somersaults when forced to fly.

Samani identified five large DNA regions encompassing hundreds of genes but found no mutations directly linked to tumbling. Analyzing gene activity in the brains of parlor rollers compared to non rolling pigeons revealed nearly 2,000 genes with varying activity levels. Despite narrowing down her search to around 300 candidate genes associated with tumbling, the specific genes responsible remain unidentified.

The article itself gives more of a background into Samani and how she got introduced to genetics in Iran where she is from. It's quite remarkable and full circle to see the evolution of her interests, from studying pigeon colors in a small city  to delving into the genetic and neurological aspects of pigeon behavior by analyzing brain activity levels. I look forward to following both her current research on birds and her future endeavors in the field of genetics.


1 comment:

  1. This was very intriguing to read, Kailey. I knew about unethical pet breeding, such as in pugs whose faces are so flat they can't breathe, but I was unaware we had done that to pigeons as well. I wonder if some genetic bottlenecking took place to create an entire breed of pigeons that are completely unable to fly? Very sad, but thank you nonetheless for sharing!