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Cape Sugarbird
Cape Sugarbird, Promerops cafer, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, South Africa.
Photo by Sharon Birks
Apapane in Mamane, Sophora chrysophylla
Photo © Eric VanderWerf; Pacific Rim Conservation

Genetic Resources – Hawaii, US

DNA Sheds Light on UV Vision in Flower-Pollinating Birds

The Burke Museum is one of the only places in the world that collects and stores tissues from a wide variety of animals and birds for future research. The rich array of biological information available from the more than 35,000 birds and 7,000 mammals in our collection is utilized by scientists around the world. 

In 2009, Swedish researcher Anders Ödeen contacted our genetic resources collections manager, Sharon Birks, to find out what tissue samples we have from birds known to pollinate flowers. Ödeen and his colleague Olle Håstad at Uppsala University explained that they were doing research on the evolution of UV vision in birds, and were interested in seeing if there had been co-evolution between certain color pigments found in flowers, and the ability of their bird pollinators to perceive UV light. 

After learning what we had available in our collection, they requested tissue samples from the sugarbird and Apapane to sequence DNA from the opsin (visual pigment) gene in both birds. 

The Apapane (Himatione sanguinea) is a native species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. This specimen was added to our genetic resources collection in the early 1990's after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service in Hawaii found several dead birds in various locations in the Hawaiian Islands and sent the birds to us.

A few years later, in 1994, Burke Museum researchers went on an expedition to South Africa where they collected a number of birds for research. Among these was the Gurney's sugarbird (Promerops gurneyi) found in KwaZulu/Natal Province, 60 km west of Pietermaritzburg.

Ödeen and Håstad gathered DNA information from these birds and from other flower-pollinating species (many from other museum collections around the world) and determined that most perching birds such as the Apapane and sugarbird have visual opsins that are "tuned" to UV light and could see it well, whereas other groups of flower-pollinating birds, such as hummingbirds and Australian honeyeaters, did not.

We can't anticipate what tissue samples scientists will request from our collection, which is why growing and carefully preserving our "library" of biodiversity is increasingly important, especially as habitats and organisms face destructive pressures in the wild.

Click to read more on "Pollinating birds differ in spectral sensitivity" study and the Burke Genetic Resources Collection.

The samples used in this study were UWBM 65834 and UWBM 70395.