Natural selection shaped the rise and fall of passenger pigeon genomic diversity

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Science  17 Nov 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6365, pp. 951-954
DOI: 10.1126/science.aao0960

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Genetics of the passenger pigeon

The now-extinct passenger pigeon used to be one of the most numerous vertebrates on Earth. Murray et al. examined the genomes of four passenger pigeon samples from different locales within its range. They describe the interplay between passenger pigeon population size, genome structure and recombination, and natural selection. They conclude that a reduction in genetic diversity provided few avenues for the bird to respond to human pressures, which ultimately drove it to extinction.

Science, this issue p. 951


The extinct passenger pigeon was once the most abundant bird in North America, and possibly the world. Although theory predicts that large populations will be more genetically diverse, passenger pigeon genetic diversity was surprisingly low. To investigate this disconnect, we analyzed 41 mitochondrial and 4 nuclear genomes from passenger pigeons and 2 genomes from band-tailed pigeons, which are passenger pigeons’ closest living relatives. Passenger pigeons’ large population size appears to have allowed for faster adaptive evolution and removal of harmful mutations, driving a huge loss in their neutral genetic diversity. These results demonstrate the effect that selection can have on a vertebrate genome and contradict results that suggested that population instability contributed to this species’s surprisingly rapid extinction.

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