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 last week 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.