How some birds lost the ability to fly | Science News for Students

How some birds lost the ability to fly

Scientists blame changes in the mysterious DNA that controls genes
May 8, 2019 — 6:45 am EST
an adult emu and her chick in a grassland

Emus and their relatives may have lost the ability to fly because of changes in DNA that regulates genes. Here, an emu walks with its chick.

Graeme Chapman

Some bird species are permanently grounded. New research shows they may have evolved this way due to tweaks in DNA that bosses genes around. 

Emus, ostriches, kiwis, rheas, cassowaries and tinamous all belong to a group of birds called ratites. (So do the extinct moa and elephant birds.) Of these, only tinamous can fly. Scientists studied the regulatory DNA of these birds to learn why most of them can’t fly. The researchers found that mutations in regulatory DNA caused ratites to lose flight. That happened in up to five separate branches of the birds’ family tree. The researchers reported their results April 5 in Science.

Regulatory DNA is more mysterious than the DNA that makes up genes. Studying how this bossy DNA drives evolution could shed light on how closely related species can evolve such different traits.

Bossy DNA

Genes are pieces of DNA that hold instructions for making proteins. In turn, the proteins do tasks inside your body. But regulatory DNA doesn’t carry protein-making instructions. Instead, it controls when and where genes turn on and off.

Researchers have long debated how big evolutionary changes happen, such as gaining or losing flight. Is it because of mutations — changes — to protein-making genes that are tied to the trait? Or is it mainly because of tweaks to the more mysterious regulatory DNA?

Scientists often had stressed the importance in evolution of changes in the genes that code for (or make) proteins. Examples are relatively easy to find. For instance, an earlier study suggested that mutations in a single gene shrank the wings of flightless birds known as Galápagos cormorants.

In general, mutations that change proteins are likely to do more damage than changes to regulatory DNA, says Camille Berthelot. That makes those changes easier to spot. Berthelot is an evolutionary geneticist in Paris at the French national medical research institute, INSERM. One protein may have many jobs throughout the body. “So everywhere this protein is [made], there’s going to be consequences,” she says. 

By contrast, many pieces of DNA may help regulate a gene’s activity. Each piece of bossy DNA might work in only one or a few types of tissue. That means a mutation in one regulatory piece won’t do as much damage. So changes can add up in those bits of DNA as animals evolve.

But that also means it’s much harder to tell when regulatory DNA is involved in big evolutionary changes, says Megan Phifer-Rixey. She’s an evolutionary geneticist who works at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J. Those pieces of DNA don’t all look alike. And they may have changed a lot from species to species. 

an illustration showing four flightless birds: an ostrich, a rhea, a moa, and a tinamou
The ostrich, rhea and an extinct bird called a moa are all flightless. Their wing bones are either missing or smaller for their body size than the wing bones of the tinamou. That’s a related bird that can fly. Flightless birds have a sternum (in this picture, the lower bone in the chest). But they’re missing another bone called the keel bone, where flight muscles attach. Birds that can’t fly often also have bigger bodies and longer legs than birds that fly. New research suggests that some of those differences are linked to changes in their regulatory DNA.
Lily Lu

Mapping mutations

Scott Edwards and his colleagues got around that problem by decoding the genetic instruction books, or genomes, of 11 bird species. Edwards is an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Eight of the species were flightless birds. The researchers then compared these genomes to already completed genomes from other birds. Those included flightless birds such as ostriches, white-throated tinamous, North Island brown kiwis and emperor and Adélie penguins. They also included 25 species of flying birds. 

The researchers were looking for stretches of regulatory DNA that hadn’t changed much as birds evolved. That stability is a hint that this DNA is doing an important job that shouldn’t be messed with.

The scientists found 284,001 shared stretches of regulatory DNA that hadn’t changed much. Among these, 2,355 had accumulated more mutations than expected in ratites — but not in other birds. That high number of ratite mutations shows that those bits of bossy DNA are changing faster than other parts of their genomes. That might mean the bossy bits have lost their original functions.

The researchers were able to figure out when the rate of mutations had sped up — in other words, when evolution happened fastest. Those times could have been when the bossy DNA stopped doing its job and birds lost their ability to fly. Edwards’ team concluded that ratites lost flight at least three times. It may even have happened as many as five times. 

Those regulatory DNA bits tended to be close to genes that help make limbs, such as wings and legs. That hints that they might tweak gene activity to make smaller wings. The team tested how well one such bossy DNA bit could turn on a gene in chicken wings when chicks were still inside their eggs. That piece of bossy DNA is called an enhancer.

The team tried one version of the enhancer from elegant-crested tinamous, a species that can fly. That enhancer turned on the gene. But when the researchers tried a version of that same enhancer from the flightless greater rhea, it didn’t work. That suggests changes in that enhancer turned off its role in wing development. And that might have contributed to rheas becoming flightless, the scientists conclude.

Flight in the family tree

Scientists are still trying to figure out the evolutionary story of ratites. Why are they all flightless except for tinamous? One hypothesis is that the ancestor of all the species had lost the ability to fly, and tinamous later got it back. However, Edwards says, “We simply don’t think that’s very plausible.” Rather, he thinks the ancestor of ratites probably could fly. Tinamous kept that ability, but related birds lost it — mostly because of changes in regulatory DNA. “My hunch is that it’s relatively easy to lose flight,” he says. 

Outside of the bird family tree, flight has evolved only a few times, Edward says. It evolved in pterosaurs, in bats, and maybe a couple of times in insects. But birds have lost flight multiple times. There are no known examples of regaining flight once it has been lost, he says.

The new data do not convince Luisa Pallares. She’s an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University in New Jersey. The study asks which is more important for evolution: regulatory DNA changes or protein-coding ones. “I personally don’t see a point in doing that,” Pallares says. Both types of change happen and may be equally important in shaping evolution, she says.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

bat     A type of winged mammal comprising more than 1,100 separate species — or one in every four known species of mammal.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

birds     Warm-blooded animals with wings that first showed up during the time of the dinosaurs. Birds are jacketed in feathers and produce young from the eggs they deposit in some sort of nest. Most birds fly, but throughout history there have been the occasional species that don’t.

coding     (in genetics) The instructions contained in DNA (or its genes) that allow a cells to know what proteins to make and when to make them.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

development     (in biology) The growth of an organism from conception through adulthood, often undergoing changes in chemistry, size and sometimes even shape.

DNA     (short for deoxyribonucleic acid) A long, double-stranded and spiral-shaped molecule inside most living cells that carries genetic instructions. It is built on a backbone of phosphorus, oxygen, and carbon atoms. In all living things, from plants and animals to microbes, these instructions tell cells which molecules to make.

emu     A large, flightless bird. Only the ostrich is a larger bird. The emu is native to Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines and some South Pacific islands. The animal belongs to a very primitive family within modern birds. It eats fruits, seeds and insects and tends to travel over a broad region rather than settling down in one small area.

evolution     (v. to evolve) A process by which species undergo changes over time, usually through genetic variation and natural selection. These changes usually result in a new type of organism better suited for its environment than the earlier type. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the particular conditions in which it developed. 

evolutionary biologist     Someone who studies the adaptive processes that have led to the diversity of life on Earth. These scientists can study many different subjects, including the microbiology and genetics of living organisms, how species change to adapt, and the fossil record (to assess how various ancient species are related to each other and to modern-day relatives).

extinct     An adjective that describes a species for which there are no living members.

family     A taxonomic group consisting of at least one genus of organisms.

Galápagos     Islands in the Pacific Ocean that belong to Ecuador and are located some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) west of the South American mainland. Charles Darwin’s visit to the islands in 1835 and his observation of unusual animals on them inspired his theory of evolution.

gene     (adj. genetic) A segment of DNA that codes, or holds instructions, for a cell’s production of a protein. Offspring inherit genes from their parents. Genes influence how an organism looks and behaves.

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

genome     The complete set of genes or genetic material in a cell or an organism. The study of this genetic inheritance housed within cells is known as genomics.

hypothesis     (v. hypothesize) A proposed explanation for a phenomenon. In science, a hypothesis is an idea that must be rigorously tested before it is accepted or rejected.

keel bone    Also known as a carina. It’s an extension of the breastbone in birds that runs down along their midsection and is perpendicular to their ribs.

limb     (in physiology) An arm or leg. (in botany) A large structural part of a tree that branches out from the trunk.

moa     Large, wingless birds that lived in New Zealand until going extinct about 500 years ago.

muscle     A type of tissue used to produce movement by contracting its cells, known as muscle fibers. Muscle is rich in protein, which is why predatory species seek prey containing lots of this tissue.

mutation     (v. mutate) Some change that occurs to a gene in an organism’s DNA. Some mutations occur naturally. Others can be triggered by outside factors, such as pollution, radiation, medicines or something in the diet. A gene with this change is referred to as a mutant.

penguin    A flightless black-and-white bird native to the far Southern Hemisphere, especially Antarctica and its nearby islands.

protein     A compound made from one or more long chains of amino acids. Proteins are an essential part of all living organisms. They form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues; they also do the work inside of cells. Among the better-known, stand-alone proteins are the hemoglobin (in blood) and the antibodies (also in blood) that attempt to fight infections. Medicines frequently work by latching onto proteins.

pterosaur     Any of various extinct flying reptiles of the order Pterosauria. These animals lived 245 million years ago to 65 million years ago. Although not true dinosaurs, they lived during the reign of dinosaurs. Among members of this order were the pterodactyls of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, which were characterized by wings consisting of a flap of skin supported by the very long fourth digit on each forelimb.

regulate     (n. regulation) To control with actions.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

tissue     Made of cells, it is any of the distinct types of materials that make up animals, plants or fungi. Cells within a tissue work as a unit to perform a particular function in living organisms. Different organs of the human body, for instance, often are made from many different types of tissues.

trait     A characteristic feature of something. (in genetics) A quality or characteristic that can be inherited.


Journal: T.B. Sackton et al. Convergent regulatory evolution and loss of flight in paleognathous birdsScience. Vol. 364, April 5, 2019, p. 74. doi: 10.1126/science.aat7244.