Monday, January 7, 2013

What’s Next for Academic Ornithology?

Want to know how studying microorganisms relates to studying adaptive radiation, and evolution in selected traits like color and morphology in birds like this White-winged Crossbill?  Sexual selection is well studied in a host of bird species, but the genetics of sexual selection have yet to be worked out.  Gavin Leighton has brought us yet another great piece on where ornithology may be headed in the near future.  Read on and keep an open mind (White-winged Crossbill, Provincetown, MA, December 2012).
By Gavin M. Leighton

There’s no hiding it anymore: the major academic ornithological societies, e.g. The American Ornithological Union, The Wilson Ornithological Society, The Cooper Ornithological Society, and smaller raptor groups, are facing declining membership numbers and reduced revenues.  These groups are currently in the midst of talks about forming a singular society so as to pool resources and reduce inefficiencies due to overlapping functions.  Importantly, the decline in the groups also reflects a similar, though less drastic, proportion of research biologists performing research on natural populations.  While species such as the Darwin’s Finches continue to receive much press, the fields of evolutionary biology and behavioral ecology have diversified into new groups. 

This diversification is welcome; we can test overarching biological principles in more species and some of the new work is done on species that are amenable to controlled studies in labs.  Therefore, the appropriate response of academic ornithologists is not to resent the burgeoning work on species such as Dictyostelium discoideum; rather, academic ornithologists should turn their attention to the genetic and mutational techniques that have been developed in the microbial and agricultural worlds.  The DNA sequencing technology now available to researchers is staggering; we can sequence billions of base pairs of DNA in less than a few days.  Other groups of researchers have used this data to characterize soil meta-communities, identify mutations in agricultural crops, and delimit the mutations associated with coat color in some mouse species. 
ABI Prism 3100 Genetic Analyzer – we have the technology... (Photo from Wikipedia)
Not only are these techniques providing truck-loads of data, they are also being refined by the researchers performing the techniques.  The researchers have worked out most of the kinks associated with common next-generation sequencing technology thus delivering to ornithological researchers a massive opportunity that should not, and can not, be wasted.  The reasons that first attracted researchers to studying birds are the same reasons that should be used to create a mini-rebirth in academic ornithology. 

For instance, the biological community has gravitated towards studying sexual selection in birds because of the wealth of color traits and behavioral traits that are supposedly due to sexual selection.  As referenced before, Darwin’s finches are a classic example of species radiation (as an aside, Darwin didn’t even realize the finches were all finches until he had an ornithologist friend examine the specimens), and a considerable number of bird species are studied because of their cooperative breeding behaviors. 

Until recently, serious genetic studies could only be conducted on “model” species that were both reared in labs and also had their genome sequenced and published.  Now, a host of enzymatic digestion and sequencing allow researchers to discover large swaths of the genome at a time.  And in some cases, these DNA sequences can be mapped onto the genome of a closely related species; for example, individuals working on Darwin’s finches could map sequences onto the genome of the zebra finch.

What does all this mean? First, we can begin to understand the genetic architecture that underlies the variety of bird colors we see.  We would be able to compare tanagers and Northern Cardinals to see if selection produced red feather color along similar molecular pathways.  We will be able to delimit the genes that underlie behaviors like cooperative breeding, whereby some individuals give up the opportunity to breed elsewhere and instead help raise their siblings or half-sibs. 
Is red feather pigment selected for along the same or similar molecular pathways in all species?  Is bill morphology in Red Crossbill types selected for along similar pathways as bill morphologies in Darwin's finches?  (Red Crossbill, Provincetown, MA, December 2012)
Once we define these genes that are correlated with certain morphological or behavioral traits, it won’t be long before researchers can insert mutations or new forms of a gene into wild individuals using vectors such as viruses.  Field experimentation/validation is considered the holy grail of field biologists, and in the near future ornithologists will be able to perform the studies that conclusively show that certain genes are responsible for certain traits.  Once we understand which genes control which traits, we can follow those genes over time and track evolution in real time in animal species. 

In total, the depth and breadth of our understanding of the natural world will grow exponentially.  The only necessary step is for ornithologists to catch-up with the technology that is coming online.  Regrettably, many ornithologists are only familiar with the new techniques, but hesitant to dive into the new world of next-generation sequencing.  This is disconcerting as the potential data that could be collected and analyzed on bird species would firmly entrench ornithology as a relevant and exciting field of biology.  Indeed, there is no reason why the bird traits that have drawn both researchers and the public to birds in the past, can’t be studied and understood using the new technology we have now.  Importantly, if academic ornithologists do take advantage of the opportunities presented by new sequencing technology, then we could reverse declining membership in bird societies and potentially engender a new renaissance in birding.

Gavin is a PhD candiate at the University of Miami studying cooperative behavior in Sociable Weavers.  To learn more about Gavin, see our Guest Writers page.

We at BoomCha are excited and hopeful to hear from you.  Please comment on this post with your thoughts, concerns, and opinions on Gavin's piece.


  1. I'm not sure that next gen sequencing, or linking phenotype and genotype in birds is the answer to solving issues in the AOU, COS, WOS, etc. I'm not convinced that the following statement is necessarily true : "the decline in the groups also reflects a similar, though less drastic, proportion of research biologists performing research on natural populations."

    And I don't see how genomics and linking traits to alleles changes this for field experiments with birds more than any other taxonomic group. I don't question that new molecular techniques open up new exciting questions in ecology and evolutionary biology, but their reach is larger than just birds, and there are way more tractable systems to answer many questions.

    My own personal opinion is that the major ornithological organizations are just dealing with the fact that biology was more bird-centric 100 years ago than it is today, and there is an over-abundance of capital so to speak. Joining together, reducing overhead just makes sense, doing it without upsetting anyone and their historical traditions and "culture" is the hard part.

    I think the great evolutionary biologists and ecologists out there aren't so loyal to a taxonomic group as much as a related group of questions, for good reasons.

    and lastly, next gen sequencing is EXPENSIVE, yeah that will change, but it's worth mentioning.

  2. Hmm, all of this does seem new and exciting but do we really need to know the answers? Conservation of species and habitats should be a priority over sequencing gene pathways.

  3. Anonymous,

    I did not mean to imply that next-gen sequencing and gene manipulation were a silver bullet for ornithological groups; however, in my anecdotal experience with speaking to citizens about science, they are interested in birds, but are blown away by developments such as sequencing genomes in a day and building proto-cells as has been done by Craig Venter's group. I don't see any reason these two should be mutually exclusive.

    You rightly point out that questions are the fundamental driver in ecology, evolution, and behavior; moreover, birds are often not the ideal study group for certain questions. For instance, many individuals in the field of social evolution are now using social amoebae (previously known as slime moulds) and bacteria to do evolutionary experiments in a matter of weeks! Birds provide opportunities in studying things such as sexual selection, color evolution, and cooperative breeding that few other systems rival in terms of diversity and independent evolution of these characteristics.

    It seems that combining the groups would make sense with or without declining membership; though I think declining membership is more of a driver than you concede.

    Next generation sequencing is expensive, but the rate at which sequencing costs are being cut in half is faster than the rate at which computer processing doubles - which is considered a standard for technology. Further, certain digestion-based sequencing methods allow us to sequence large portions of the genome without having to assemble everything, further reducing costs. It seems likely, especially with new nanopore sequencing methods, that we will be sequencing individual genomes for several hundred dollars within the next decade.

    To Unknown,

    You bring up a point which is worthy of debate and which has been debated for some time. Allocation of limited resources is a major issue for funding agencies. In a more ideal world, countries like the USA would allocate more to conservation efforts. I do want to point out that increased understanding of species genetics is often used as an argument for conservation. The more we know about population genomics, especially with small populations, the more we can speak to the need of conservation.