SALT LAKE CITY, Jan. 19 (UPI) -- The spectacular variations in pigeons' feathers, feet, beaks and other physical traits don't always coincide with their genetic makeup, U.S. researchers say.
A study by University of Utah biologists found a bird from one breed may have huge foot feathers while a genetically closely related breed does not, yet two genetically unrelated pigeon breeds may both have large foot feathers.
There are more than 350 breeds of pigeons differing in color, color pattern, body size, beak size and shape, posture, vocalizations, feather placement and flight behavior, a university release said Thursday.
"What we found through this study is that birds that are only distantly related to each other can have very similar traits, and others that are very closely related to each other can look quite different in terms of their traits," Utah biology professor Michael Shapiro said.
The study found free-living pigeons, including the common city pigeons considered by some people as "rats of the sky," carry the DNA of escaped or lost racing pigeons, with genetic analysis suggesting most have roots in the Middle East, some having more recent origins in India.
"Pigeons are a remarkable example of how selection and heredity work," Shapiro said. "These breeds are all members of the same species, but look really different."
"This happened because pigeon fanciers over the ages favored particular traits. This happened in dogs, too.
"It also happens to animals and other living things in the wild, except the agents of selection and change are environmental factors rather than human preference," he said.