Through the efforts of breeders from all over the world, there are over 350 different breeds of pigeons. They come in a variety of sizes, colors, beak shapes and plumage. Some have feathered feet and others have scaled feet. Some have feathered head and some are bald. They are white, black, grey, red, brown, silver, orange and bluish. Their beaks can be long or short.
University of Utah assistant professor of biology Michael Shapiro and his team set out to study the genetics of pigeons and discovered some very interesting aspects that they never expected to find.
They studied the genetic relationships and visible traits of 361 pigeons representing 70 domestic breeds. Also included in the study were 2 populations of pigeons that are wild or free roaming. One population was from Salt Lake City and the other was from the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
Shapiro expected to find genetic links between different breeds that shared common traits. For example, the English trumpeter pigeon and the old German owl pigeon both have a feathered crest on their heads so they should share a common genetic code for that trait.
However, in a number of instances, this was not the case. In fact the genetic study indicated that the English trumpeter and old German owl pigeons were not as closely related as they had thought. The same held true for a number of other pigeon breeds with similar traits.
Yet, there were some that had similar traits that did appear to be closely related. The old German owl pigeon and the African owl pigeon both have shorter beaks and the research indicated that they had a similar genetic relationship.
He also found that some breeds with completely different traits seemed to be more closely related genetically than they expected. The English pouter has feathered feet and the Brunner pouter does not, yet they appear to be genetically more closely related.
Genetically, the free living pigeons in Salt Lake City appeared to have some DNA from racing homer pigeons. The free living pigeons from the Island of Skye appeared to have some DNA from a breed known as Modena, which was an old racing breed.
They concluded that most of the pigeons studied had genetic roots that led back to the Middle East. Others seem to have a more recent origin in India. Since some breeds shared physical traits but not a close genetic relationship, that breeders over the years have repeatedly selected similar traits in a variety of different breeds. They discussed that the domestication of pigeons happened about 3,000 to 5,000. They cited the Egyptian use of pigeons for ceremonial purposes.
Interestingly, Shapiro compared his findings to those that have been discovered within human populations in that the relationship between different ethnic groups of people may vary like those in the pigeons. Head of the Utah University’s Department of Human Genetics Lynn Jorde commented on Shapiro’s study saying,
“On average, people from one population or ‘race’ tend to be more similar genetically to one another than to those of another population. But the race categories we use are quite imperfect and there is a lot of overlap genetically between populations. So there would be many instances in which a black person would be more similar to some white people than to other black people.”
This study and others helps to demonstrate the true complexity of genetics, especially when it comes to the artificial breeding of animals and plants. It also helps to demonstrate just how much diversity can exist in one organism’s genome. When that organism spreads out and diversifies itself over the earth, you can see how so many different looking organisms can result. It also demonstrates that no matter how much change occurs within that particular genome, in this case pigeons, they all remain as pigeons and nothing else.
I also found it interesting when the report said that pigeons pretty much originated in the Middle East and were domesticated between 3,000 and 5,000 years. The Genesis Flood mentioned in Genesis 6-9 occurred about 4,360 years ago. The first biblical reference to pigeons occurs in Genesis 15:9 when God is talking to Abram and says:
He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”
That would indicate that pigeons had been domesticated for some time prior to Abram’s encounter with God. According to the genealogies in Genesis, Abram was born approximately 1950 years after creation. Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran (Gen 12:4). In Gen. 16:3 it says that Abram had lived in the land of Canaan for 10 years. Therefore, we can deduce that Abram was approximately 80 to 85 years old when pigeons were first mentioned in Scripture. That would place it at approximately 2030 to 2035 years after creation or only about 3985 years ago. Since pigeons had obviously been domesticated for some time in order for God to instruct Abram to use one for a sacrifice, that would put their domestication prior to 4,000 years ago. It’s even possible that they were domesticated in Noah’s day when he took them on board the ark which would push their domestication prior to 4,360 years ago.
Isn’t it great when the researcher’s figures fit with what we know from Scripture!
For Pigeons, Visible Traits Don’t Necessarily Coincide With Genes, Red Orbit, Jan. 20, 2012.
Adventures of Arkie the Archaeopteryx
Join Arkie the Archaeopteryx as he flies through an ancient jungle and meets many unique creatures that are also not missing links. This delightful adventure helps children look at the natural world through a biblical lens, giving glory to God.