Variation under domestication activity

Birmingham rollers in a pigeon coop

Research assistants with the Darwin Correspondence Project joined the teaching team for a new Freshman Seminar at Harvard College called “Getting to Know Darwin.” The class was composed of first year undergraduates and was taught by Ned Friedman, director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University and Professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Here is a link to a feature about the course

 While studying the importance of variation under domestication to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), the class went on a field trip to a pigeon fancier. Pigeon fanciers typically breed pigeons for competition. Among other things, pigeons compete on their appearance, speed, and ability to tumble through the air rapidly. The pigeon fancier the class visited breeds Birmingham roller pigeons. These pigeons compete on the basis of their ability to tumble through the air in a group. During this field trip the students learned about and observed the vast array of phenotypic expressions that can be achieved within a single pigeon breed through artificial selection; the pigeons varied in their plumage, coloring, and size.


Observing variation in the Birmingham rollers

 If you don’t have access to a pigeon fancier, there are many other ways to gain an appreciation for the importance of variation under domestication to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. For example, you could visit a dog, cat, or horse breeder. Before visiting the breeder, have your students read Darwin’s work on pigeons and the first chapter of On the Origin of Species. At the breeder, your students will have the opportunity to make their own observations of the power of artificial selection.


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