Complete Genome of Scarlet Macaw Sequenced for First Time

Scarlet Macaw

Story at-a-glance

  • Neblina the parrot holds the distinction of being the first Scarlet macaw in the world to have her complete genome sequenced by scientists at Texas A&M.
  • The sequencing showed that Scarlet macaws have about one-third the number of DNA bases found in mammals. In addition, Neblina’s genome sequence shows several similarities to the chicken!
  • There are 23 species of macaws, and sadly, several are already extinct while others are endangered. Population decreases are the result of trapping for the pet trade and loss of habitat due to deforestation.

By Dr. Becker

According to a recent report by Science Daily:

"In a groundbreaking move that provides new insight into avian evolution, biology and conservation, researchers at Texas A&M University have successfully sequenced the complete genome of a Scarlet macaw for the first time."

Genome sequencing is a technique that allows researchers to read and decipher the genetic information found in the DNA of living things – everything from bacteria to plants to animals.

Genome of Scarlet Macaw Shows Similarities with the Chicken

The bird involved in the study was a Scarlet macaw named Neblina who lives at a zoo in Iowa. Neblina is probably from Brazil. She was seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service almost 20 years ago during a raid on illegally imported exotic birds. Neblina’s role in the study was simply to allow a blood sample to be drawn.

The team of researchers who performed the genome sequencing was led by Dr. Christopher Seabury and Dr. Ian Tizard of the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M. Their work was published in a recent issue of the scientific journal PLoS ONE.1

From Neblina’s blood sample, DNA was extracted and after a series of steps, the sequence of her genome was constructed by Dr. Seabury and his team.

According to Dr. Tizard, the final analysis of Neblina’s genome sequencing showed that she has about one-third the number of DNA bases found in mammals. “Birds have much less DNA than mammals primarily because they do not possess nearly as much repetitive DNA," said Tizard.

Interestingly, Neblina’s final genome sequence shows similarities with the chicken, but there are also differences. For example, macaws can fly long distances -- chickens cannot. Also, the size and development of Neblina’s brain is very different from that of a chicken, which makes sense given what is known about the extraordinary intelligence of macaws. And as Dr. Tizard points out, “Macaws can live many years, while chickens usually do not, and therefore, our macaw genome sequence may help shed light on the genetic factors that influence longevity and intelligence.”

Some Species of Macaws Are Already Extinct and Others Are Endangered

The reason Neblina was chosen for genome sequencing was because Texas A&M researchers working in Peru have been studying diseases, behavior and genetics of the Scarlet macaw for years.

Macaws are native to tropical climates in Central and South America. Sadly, trapping for the exotic pet trade, coupled with loss of habitat from deforestation has severely decreased populations of these gorgeous birds since the 1960s. There are almost two-dozen species of macaws, some of which are already extinct. Others are endangered.

Macaws have stunning, bright colored feathers and wingspans that can reach four feet. They can live 50 to 75 years in captivity and often outlive their human families. Macaws mate for life and are considered to be among the most intelligent birds alive. They are also affectionate and sensitive to human emotions, according to Dr. Tizard.


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