Researchers have sequenced the genetic code of the kiwi bird and have found several changes that point to the bird's inability to see some colors after having adapted to being active at night.

In a study published in the journal Genome Biology, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Leipzig refer to a "use it or lose it" principle to explain why some genes associated with seeing color have been inactivated.

As the kiwi bird doesn't rely much on sight to survive the night, it devolved its seeing ability. This is supported by the fact that the sequence showed that the kiwi has a highly diverse level of odor receptors compared to other birds, pointing to its use of smell rather than sight when acquiring food under nocturnal conditions.

Kiwis have a handful of characteristics that make them interesting to study. However, very little genetic information has been available, stalling research that could have furthered understanding of the bird.

Now that the kiwi's complete genome has been sequenced, studying the changes that it has undergone in the last 35 million years after it arrived in New Zealand has now been given a boost.

First realizations after sequencing the bird's genome, though, pointed out how the kiwi population manifests little variability in their genetics. This is a threat to the bird's survival and should be taken into consideration when breeding programs are to be developed in the future.

"The genome of the kiwi is an important resource for future comparative analyses with other extinct and living flightless birds," explained Janet Kelso, one of the authors for the study.

The kiwi is New Zealand's national symbol. It belongs to a bird group known as ratites that include other flightless birds such as the rhea, emu and ostrich, and the moa, which has now been extinguished. A lot of the local birds in the country became extinct around 800 years ago when people first migrated to New Zealand. The kiwi is considered an endangered species today, so intensive effort is in place to protect it.

The study received funding support from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, the Australian Research Council, the Max Planck Society, NSERC and the Swedish Research Council.

Photo: Allie Caulfield | Flickr

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