Migration, it’s in their genes

Tracing the evolutionary history of the European blackcap using high-throughput sequencing reveals divergent migration in this small songbird evolved some 30,000 years ago.
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A male European blackcap. Image credit: Beneharo Rodriìguez (CC BY 4.0)

Every year as the seasons change, thousands of animals migrate huge distances in search of food or better climates. As far as migrations go, there might be none so impressive as the trans-oceanic flights made by small migrating songbirds. These birds can weigh as little as three grams and travel up to 15,000 kilometres. Most migrate alone and at night and yet still manage to return to the same location each year. Several strands of research suggest there could be a genetic basis to their migratory behaviour, but exactly which genes control this phenomenon remains poorly understood.

One small songbird that has been studied for decades is the European blackcap. This species exhibits a real variety of migration patterns. Some blackcaps travel rather short distances, others much further, and some populations do not migrate at all. Populations that share the same breeding grounds in the summer may migrate in different directions in the autumn. These features make it a good species to study the genetic variation between populations that migrate in different directions and over different distances. However, only in recent years has advancing technology made it possible to comprehensively study an animal’s entire genome, leaving no gene unturned.

Now, Delmore et al. have used high-throughput sequencing technologies to trace the evolutionary history of migration in European blackcap and started by assembling a reference genome for the species. Then, the genomes of 110 blackcaps from several populations that take different annual migrations were compared to the reference. This revealed that the populations began to diverge some 30,000 years ago and that there was some apparent gene mixing between groups of migrating and resident blackcaps around 5,000 years ago. The analysis showed only a small set of genes code for their differences in migration. Additionally, while the candidate genes were shown to be common among blackcaps, the genes identified did not match those reported from studies of other migrating songbirds. Finally, Delmore et al. also noted that the differences between the populations tend to be in the parts of the genome that control whether a given gene is switched on or off, which could explain how new migratory behaviours can rapidly evolve.

This study is one of the most comprehensive genomic analysis of migration to date. It is important work as songbirds, like other animals, are responding to increasing pressures of environmental and climate change. In time, the findings could be used to support conservation efforts whereby genetic analyses could determine if certain populations possess enough variation to respond to coming changes in their habitats.