What causes all the different feather (plumage) patterns in bobwhite quail? Jessie Salter is trying to solve that mystery!
Jessie Salter, a graduate researcher in the labs of Brant Faircloth and Robb Brumfield in the LSU Department of Biological Sciences and Museum of Natural Science, recently rocked a seminar presentation about her dissertation research on bobwhite quail. Intrigued by a photo of the intricate plumage patterns of the bobwhite that Jessie shared on her Twitter feed, we asked Jessie to tell us more about her work with these birds.
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College of Science: How did you come to study birds? Have you always been interested in this area of science? What about this area of science most intrigues you?
Jessie: I have always loved natural history. I was a major nature documentary nerd as a kid (who am I kidding, I still am) and I loved going to the Field Museum in Chicago, where I grew up. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World is one of my favorite books.
As I got older, I thought studying animals in exotic locations was outside the realm of possibility, until I went to college and started taking more courses involving natural history. I went to Occidental College, which is a small liberal arts school in Los Angeles that despite its size has the largest collection of Mexican birds in the world. I took Ornithology and Museum Science, which really sparked my interest in birds and made me realize this was a thriving field and something I could actually pursue. I love working in a museum setting because there’s so much history involved – every specimen is a unique object that documents important biological information but also historical context, such as when and where it was collected, and by whom.
Collections also document change through time, and I’m especially interested in the kinds of questions we can answer now that we can access genomic data from historical museum specimens, even those collected over 100 years ago.
College of Science: Can you tell us a bit about your research at the LSU Museum of Natural Science?
Jessie: The central question that motivates my research is, what are the processes that generate and maintain diversity in birds, and how do they work? To answer this, I extract DNA from tissue samples collected in the field and from historical museum specimens. Using next-generation sequencing techniques, I generate genomic datasets and use a variety of computational tools to analyze the relationships between and within different species. I’m interested in broad systematic questions, like resolving the relationships within an entire family of birds, and population-level questions, like how plumage pattern variation within a species is reflected at the genetic level. I use specimens from the Museum of Natural Science to measure phenotypic variation (or the observable characteristics of the individual, like plumage pattern) across the range of a species, and connect that to the genetic variation we see in DNA.
College of Science: For your dissertation, you are studying bobwhite quail and their variation/diversity. Can you tell us what that means in lay language? What is interesting about the variation/diversity of bobwhites?
Jessie: There are four species of bobwhite quail: The Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) (which is probably most familiar to folks here in Louisiana), the Black-throated Bobwhite (C. nigrogularis), the Spot-bellied Bobwhite (C. leucopogon), and the Crested Bobwhite (C. cristatus). Across the ranges of these species, we see a lot of variation in plumage pattern depending on where they live. This is not uncommon in birds, but bobwhite quail are basically off the charts; the most extreme example is the Northern Bobwhite, which has 22 different plumage patterns, all of which are considered separate subspecies. All four species of bobwhite together account for 46 different plumage patterns. Often we see this kind of plumage pattern variation aligning with landscape features like mountain ranges, rivers, or boundaries between different habitat types, but this doesn’t appear to be the cause of all the variation we see in bobwhite. So, what is driving the extreme amount of pattern diversity we see?
College of Science: What is a bobwhite quail? What do you find most interesting, cool or intriguing about this bird? (Can you give us a fun fact?)
Jessie: A bobwhite quail is one of four species in the genus Colinus, which is in the New World Quail family (Odontophoridae). They are smallish, chunky birds about the size of nerf a football. In addition to the diversity of plumage patterns in bobwhite, there are also several well-established mutations for gigantism, which commercial breeders of bobwhite often select for. These birds are known as Wisconsin Jumbos and Georgia Giants, and can be twice the size of a normal Northern Bobwhite.
College of Science: Recently on your Twitter feed, you shared a series of photos revealing several different plumage coloration patterns in bobwhites, which all looked quite different. Why do you think these birds vary so much in their color patterns?
Jessie: That’s what I’m trying to find out! To be clear, that picture on twitter was of the four different species of bobwhite, but just within a single species like the Northern Bobwhite the variation is amazing. The focus of my dissertation research is understanding the why and the how (meaning the underlying genetic mechanisms) of the phenotypic hyperdiversity within each species.
If I had to speculate, perhaps these birds have a flexible genetic structure encoding plumage pattern that allows the pattern to change over a relatively short time based on environmental factors. We know from previous studies that there does not appear to be a lot of genetic structure differentiating the different patterns. But we’ll just have to wait and see!
College of Science: Why is it important to study the variation/diversity of bobwhites?
Jessie: Bobwhite quail are an ideal wild model system for studying the link between evolutionary forces like selection and adaptation, phenotypic diversity (i.e. plumage pattern variation), and the underlying genetics controlling that variation. Bobwhites are incredibly diverse, widely-distributed and well-represented in museum collections, and, as a close relative of chickens, they come with many genomic resources most wild bird species don’t have. Making the connection between phenotype and genetics in a wild species is still relatively rare, and has major implications for our understanding of how evolutionary forces act on the genetic level and shape biodiversity.
College of Science: Do you have a favorite bird? Can you tell us about it?
Jessie: It’s so hard to pick a favorite bird! One of my favorites has to be the Long-whiskered Owlet, which is one of the smallest owls in the world. It’s a special bird here at LSU, because it was discovered by LSU scientists in the mid-1970s – before that it was unknown to science. It has only been found in a few localities in the Peruvian Andes, and is still one of the most elusive species of birds in the world. It’s scientific name, Xenoglaux loweryi, is a nod to its mysterious status and an homage to its LSU heritage. Xenoglaux means “strange owl”, and loweryi is in honor of the LSUMNS’ founder George Lowery. Until recently, no one knew what its closest relative was, but a study I’m currently working on to resolve the relationships within the owl family (Strigidae) using genomic data reveals that the Long-whiskered Owlet is sister to the other smallest species of owl in the world, the Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi).
Jessie is a native of Evanston, IL. She earned her bachelor's degree in biology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA, where she completed her undergraduate research in the Moore Laboratory of Zoology.