Cover Stories: Animal Attraction

Science  01 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6123, pp. 1001
DOI: 10.1126/science.339.6123.1001

Cover stories offer a look at the story behind the art on the cover: who made it, how it got made, and why.

Sydney Stringham CREDIT: Jaclyn Aldenhoven

A portrait of an Old Dutch Capuchin appears on this week's cover, representing one of the hundreds of different pigeon breeds created by humans since the Neolithic Era. The photograph was taken by graduate student Sydney Stringham, from the lab of Michael Shapiro at the University of Utah. And although Salt Lake City has its own yearly pigeon shows, sometimes you have to go far afield to get the bird you need. A few years ago, Sydney traveled with her advisor to a large pigeon show in Germany, to collect samples for pigeon population genetics projects. In the process, they also got some inside information on the art of avian portraiture from a professional pigeon photographer. “I had no idea such a thing existed,” Stringham says, “but we ended up spending some of the day with this photographer.”

Stringham pursues photography outside of the lab and was especially interested in the professional's setup: a small cage that acted as a portable "studio." When the opportunity arose to photograph a pigeon for an upcoming publication, she turned the lab's break room into a pigeon photography studio, using similar techniques. “We grabbed the biggest box we had sitting around the lab,” she says, “and cut the top off of it so we could get some light from the top; stuck the bird in and put some construction paper behind him.”

For professional pictures, the focus is on capturing the whole bird, so that characteristics of the breed standard, such as the bird's posture, are visible. But instead of photographing the bird head-to-toe, Stringham focused on the bird's face and neck, using a lens and techniques more typical of portraits—her favorite style in her personal photography. “This breed, they just seemed to have such a particular personality,” Stringham says. “I really wanted to get close and just show that.”

Embedded ImageCREDIT: Sydney Stringham

The portrait approach also suited the science that the photo is illustrating: In both the picture and the research, the bird's distinctive, fluffy mane plays a key role (p. 1063). The mane is actually composed of head crest feathers that grow upside-down with respect to the rest of the head and neck feathers. This is just one of the specialized features for which humans have selected in rock pigeons through the millennia; others include changes in feather patterns, such as fan tails and feathery feet, or changes in behavior, such as high-speed flying and homing instincts. In the paper in this week's issue on which Stringham is a coauthor, Shapiro and colleagues looked at the genetic history of the rock pigeon by sequencing many different breeds of these birds, including two feral pigeons. They found that most of the breeds originated in the Middle East and that the head crest in particular evolved only once and then spread throughout the various species.

Creature Features

We get a lot of animal pictures as cover submissions, and a lot of encouragement to use them from authors, readers, and staff. But to make the cut, the picture needs the right combination of science and personality, amply evidenced in Stringham's contribution. The best images offer a path to bring the viewer deeper into the science. And, as is often the case in life, the twistiest paths can be the most intriguing. One of my favorite animal covers (14 October, 2011) was tied to research on how the rat's whiskers connect up with the brain. The cover image is about 50% rat whiskers and not only draws you in to the science but looks almost abstract at first glance. It's quite a compelling image, and definitely not your typical rat photo. (That cover, and some other favorite animal images, can be seen in the slideshow below.)

In this week's cover image, my attention was initially captured by the incredibly engaging personality of this bird that comes through the two-dimensional image. The bird appears almost regal—the portrait-style photograph makes the pigeon look more like a member of royalty or a past U.S. president than a research subject. And, because the head crest is so prominent, and the focus of the research is on these traits that make pigeon breeds unique, it made sense scientifically.

—Yael Fitzpatrick, Art Director, Science

Additional reporting by Sarah Crespi

Animalistic Covers Slideshow

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