Speciation in Seagulls

16 species and 36 subspecies of large white-headed gulls have evolved in less than 1 million years, which is extremely fast for birds. David Marques and his team investigate the genetic changes responsible for such rapid speciation. The project is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and is a collaboration with the University of Basel and the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge.

Since large-scale sequencing of DNA has become affordable, fundamental questions in evolutionary biology such as how new species evolve, experience a renaissance. This is because heritable information in the genome, consisting mainly of DNA, contains many traces of evolutionary history that can be decrypted with new methods and data.

What genetic changes lead to the evolution of new species is largely unknown today. This project will shed new light on this question by studying large white-headed gulls (Larus spp.) at different stages of the speciation process.

In a first phase, 13 gull reference genomes will be assembled to study the role of structural variation in the genome in promoting rapid speciation. In a second phase, several genomes per species will be sequenced to compare species pairs at different stages in the speciation process. In a third phase, the biogeographic history of all large white-headed gull taxa will be reconstructed. Both fresh blood samples and genetic material from museum specimens from all over the world will be used for this study.