Genome shows macaw is one smart bird

TEXAS A&M (US) — By sequencing the complete genome of a Scarlet macaw, researchers hope to learn more about the genetics behind the bird’s longevity and intelligence.

The bird selected for the sequencing was a female named Neblina who lives in the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa. Believed to be from Brazil, she was confiscated during a raid on illegally imported exotic birds by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995.

A blood sample was taken from Neblina, DNA was extracted for sequencing, and after a series of steps, the sequence of the genome was assembled.



“The final analysis showed that there are about one billion DNA bases in the genome, which is about one-third of that found in mammals,” says Ian Tizard, of the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center at Texas A&M University.

“Birds have much less DNA than mammals primarily because they do not possess nearly as much repetitive DNA.”

Published in the journal PLoS One, the final completed genome demonstrates some similarities to that of the chicken.

“But there are significant differences at both the genome and biological level. Macaws can fly great distances, while chickens can’t. In addition, brain development and volume are very different in macaws, which is unsurprising since they are very intelligent birds compared to chickens.

“Likewise, macaws can live many years, while chickens usually do not, and therefore, our macaw genome sequence may help shed light on the genetic factors that influence longevity and intelligence.”

A Scarlet macaw was selected for the first such sequencing of its type because Texas A&M researchers have been studying the bird for many years.  Working primarily at the Tambopata Research Center in Peru, Texas A&M bird experts have been investigating macaw diseases, behavior, and genetics.

“We now have the ability to initiate large-scale, genome-wide approaches for population and phylogeography studies,” says Christopher Seabury, who is a collaborator of Donald Brightsmith, director of the Tambopata Macaw Research Project in Peru.

Macaws are found in tropical Central and South America, from southern Mexico to northern Argentina.  Trapping of the birds for the pet trade, plus loss of habitat due to deforestation in their native lands, has severely decreased their numbers since the 1960s. There are 23 species of macaws, and some of these have already become extinct while others are endangered.

Macaws can live 50 to 75 years and often outlive their owners.

“They are considered to be among the most intelligent of all birds and also one of the most affectionate—it is believed they are sensitive to human emotions,” says Tizard.

“Possessing stunning feathers that are brightly colored, some macaws have a wingspan approaching four feet. They also usually mate for life and can fly as fast as 35 miles per hour.”

Source: Texas A&M University