Pink finches are Colorado high-alpine specialists, and researchers want to find out why

Pink finches are Colorado high-alpine specialists, and researchers want to find out why

Eric Funk with a rosy sparrow. Credit: University of Colorado at Boulder

Mountaineers venturing high in the Colorado Rockies have likely spotted medium-sized, brown, and pink birds roaming patches of snow in search of insects and seeds. These altitude specialists are rose finches, a species of bird that has evolved to live in some of the most rugged places in North America.

Researchers are now beginning to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding these unique birds, including Genetic foundations That allows them to stay at altitudes of up to 14,000 feet and helps determine the colors of their plumage.

Their findings suggest that the three recognized North American species of rosary sparrows — the gray-crowned rose finches, the black-crowned rose finches and the brown-crowned rose finches — may have evolved within the past 250,000 years, which is a relatively short period in evolution. reformers.

The scientists shared more details from their work in a new research paper recently published in the journal development.

in evolutionary biology from the University of Colorado Boulder and now works as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Science Foundation in San Diego Wildlife Alliance, said lead author Eric Funk, who recently received his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Understanding biodiversity

Even before Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution by natural selection in 1859, scientists had long pondered the Earth’s rich biodiversity. How and why are there so many different types of life on this planet? It’s a question that hasn’t been fully answered yet, but thanks to recent developments in Genetic sequenceResearchers now have new tools to dig deeper.

As a hiker and climber, Funk spent a lot of time in the mountains of Colorado and California, where he would often observe finches flying around. But although they most often inhabit and breed in higher regions in the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, they also breed at sea level, such as along the coast of Alaska and between the Aleutian Islands and Pribilof.

Pink finches are Colorado soaring alpine specialists—and researchers want to find out why

Drawing pink birds. Credit: Liz Clayton Fuller

In addition to these differences in breeding habits, birds have different colors and patterns of feathers. Some have brown plumage, others black. Some have a gray spot on their head or cheeks, while others do not.

Funk wondered if analyzing bird genomes could help explain some of these differences.

“We wanted to understand: can we define genetic regions responsible for generating the feather color variations found in rose finches? As he said “There is also a question about height differences.” Do the birds that live in Colorado have some unique genetic differences that allow them to live? High altitudes That birds that live at sea level don’t have them? ”

Using blood and tissue samples from the University of Alaska Museum of the North and Denver Museum of Nature and Science, 2018 A field studyFunk created a complete genome dataset that includes the full geographic range and all observable variable characteristics of the North American rosary finches. After analyzing the data, identify unique genomic regions—and possibly specific genes– that likely plays a role in the differences in the birds’ traits.

For example, he found genetic differences between birds with and without gray cheek patches in a region of the genome affecting melanin pigments, which give color to feathers, hair, skin, and eyes. Comparing birds that breed at high altitudes to those that breed at low altitudes, he found genetic differences in a region containing genes that play a role in the cell’s ability to function at different levels of oxygen.

All of the genes he linked to traits are located in distinct regions of the avian genome, which means that, over time, they can be rearranged to form new trait combinations. This supports the theory that different groups of finches likely evolved over a relatively short period of time.

“In general, we think that reproduction takes a long time — on the order of millions of years,” Funk said. “But if all this variation is already there within the pink finches, and the genome is able to recombine these different genes to produce new trait combinations, that would probably happen a lot faster. It’s a great way to think about how different traits or trait combinations might be able to.” on evolution and could have implications for the rate of population divergence and the breeding of new species.”

More knowledge, more effective conservation efforts

Overall, the findings add to scientists’ understanding of biodiversity. But then, they may also help drive conservation decisions in the face of human-caused climate change.

The brown-capped pink finches, which live primarily in Colorado, are experiencing declines in their numbers and, as such, Colorado Parks and Wildlife have identified them as a species in greatest conservation need.

To help stabilize or increase bird populations, scientists and conservationists want to know as much about them as possible—and even genetic knowledge can be helpful.

said study co-author Scott Taylor, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of the Mountain Research Station.

“Understanding this may help us better understand how these populations may respond to population collapse or changing environments in the future.”

more information:
Eric Funk et al., Genetic basis for plumage coloration and adaptation to altitude in a recently divergent flock of Alpine and Arctic songbirds, development (2023). DOI: 10.1093/evolut/qpac064

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