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Silvereye birds help scientists to settle disputed evolutionary theory

in 1954. Though subsequently tested in lab studies and artificial populations, up until now the theory had been untested in a natural population because of the need to know the colonisation date for a series of island populations.

The south west Pacific islands benefit from a well-documented history of such events, and DNA samples were taken from birds captured on the islands to be compared with samples from Silvereye colonies on the Australian mainland and with samples from island populations of Silvereyes known to be founded over 3,000 years ago. This allowed the scientists to make the crucial contrast between genetic changes in recent and old island populations.

Their computer models of evolution based on these data showed that single founder effects do not lead to strong genetic changes in the Silvereye population, contrary to the founder effect model. Instead, genetic changes build up gradually - either as a result of long-term genetic drift or though multiple bottlenecks. The authors estimate that the average successful founding flock would number more than 100 birds.

Laboratory-based studies have shown that founder effect models can work, but only under very restrictive circumstances, for example, with a very small number of colonists. A natural population with known colonisation dates is very rare and most studies have been done on artificially introduced populations, which limit the value of subsequent results because humans have set the size of the colonising group.


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Contact: Tom Miller
t.miller@ic.ac.uk
44-20-7594-6704
Imperial College London
27-May-2002


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