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Bird migration and conservation clues in robin and Turtle dove genomes

The genomes were read by the Sanger Institute and its partners, in celebration of Sanger’s 25th anniversary

The European robin and Turtle dove have had their genetic code sequenced and assembled for the first time by scientists at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and their collaborators. The genomes, completed* today (21 December) will enable researchers to explore the genetic switches controlling bird migration and give insight into the magneto receptors that help robins ‘see’ the Earth’s magnetic fields for navigation. The Turtle dove genome will help conservation efforts to save one of the UK’s fastest declining bird species.

European robins live throughout Europe, Russia and western Siberia. While most British robins reside in the UK over winter, some birds will migrate to southern Europe to overwinter in warmer climates. Simultaneously in winter, migrant robins from Scandinavia, continental Europe and Russia head to the UK to avoid the harsh weather back home.

Turtle doves also migrate, visiting their breeding grounds in Europe and spending the winter months in Africa. However, since 1995, 94 per cent of Turtle doves have been lost and there are fewer than 5,000 breeding pairs left in the UK. The Turtle dove is the UK’s fastest-declining bird species, and as a result, they are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List**.

Migration patterns and behaviours vary across species, but also within species. Similarly, environmental pressures such as disease and limited food resources affect various bird species differently. To fully understand the genetic components of complex traits, such as migration and breeding, the whole genetic code must be read and analysed.

The European robin’s and Turtle dove’s genomes were read by the Sanger Institute and its partners, in celebration of Sanger’s 25th anniversary.

Collaborators at the University of Lincoln sent robin and Turtle dove samples*** to the Sanger Institute near Cambridge. The sequencing teams extracted DNA from the samples and used PacBio SMRT Sequencing technology to generate the first reference genomes for robins and Turtle doves.

The European robin genome will enable researchers to explore the genetic switches that tell robins when to leave and where to go. The robin’s role as a model of bird migration will help in understanding the magneto receptors in birds’ eyes that allow them to use the Earth’s magnetic fields for navigation and also unpick migratory behaviour in other bird species.

“Birds can use the Earth’s magnetic field as a reference for orientation during the migratory journeys, and the magnetic compass in birds was first described in a robin. The European robin genome will allow us to identify what’s driving migration in birds, and understand the variability of migration in other bird species as well.”

Dr Miriam Liedvogel from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön Germany

The Turtle dove genome will provide a genetic reference for determining effective population sizes and establishing breeding programmes in efforts to help conserve this threatened bird species.

“To give Turtle doves the best chance of survival in the future, we need to first understand the pressures that are affecting their population decline. The Turtle dove genome will give insights into how diseases and limited food resources impact on their health and will aid practical conservation efforts to maximise the genetic diversity of introduced populations.”

Dr Jenny Dunn from the University of Lincoln

The European robin and Turtle dove join the Golden Eagle as the first of 25 UK species to have their genetic code sequenced and assembled. The 25 Genomes Project**** includes species such as grey and red squirrels Blackberry and brown trout.

“Genome sequencing has a lot to offer the natural world. Genetic information can bolster the conservation of threatened species and help unravel the tree of evolution in understanding the species we share this planet with.”

Dr Julia Wilson, associate director of the Wellcome Sanger Institute

More information

*The European robin and Turtle dove genomes have been completed to the Vertebrate Genomes Project platinum standard. Research continues to improve the quality of the genome sequences, which will be made available in 2019.


***Robin and turtle dove DNA samples were taken from blood collected from live birds during routine health checks of populations.

****For more information on the 25 Genomes Project, visit


The 25 Genomes Project is supported by Wellcome.

Selected websites

  • Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany

    The Max Planck Society is Germany’s most successful research organization. Since its establishment in 1948, no fewer than 18 Nobel laureates have emerged from the ranks of its scientists. The currently 84 Max Planck Institutes and facilities conduct basic research in the service of the general public in the natural sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. Max Planck Institutes focus on research fields that are particularly innovative, or that are especially demanding in terms of funding or time requirements.

    The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön (Germany) consists of the three departments Evolutionary Genetics, Evolutionary Theory and Microbial Population Biology and currently five independent research groups. It focuses on basic research to unravel general evolutionary processes, such as ecological adaptations, the evolution of cooperation or origins of multicellularity. The scope of the work includes ecological, organismic, molecular and theoretical approaches.

  • About the University of Lincoln, UK, (2018)

    The University of Lincoln was awarded Gold – the highest standard possible – in the national Teaching Excellence Framework, an independent assessment of teaching quality in UK higher education. The award reflects our exciting teaching, great support for students and excellent employment outcomes. Lincoln is ranked 22nd in The Guardian University Guide 2019 and 43rd in The Complete University Guide 2019. The institution is known for a pioneering approach to working with employers, which has been recognised with a Lord Stafford Award and Times Higher Education Award. In the National Student Survey 2018, students ranked Lincoln 8th in the UK for overall student satisfaction with several of our courses placed number one overall for their subject areas. Among our most recent graduates, 96 per cent were in work or further study six months after finishing their course, with more than 80 per cent in graduate level roles. More than half of our research is judged to be internationally excellent or world leading (Research Excellence Framework). See:

  • The Wellcome Sanger Institute

    The Wellcome Sanger Institute is one of the world’s leading genome centres. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower medical science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease. To celebrate its 25th year in 2018, the Institute is sequencing 25 new genomes of species in the UK. Find out more at or follow @sangerinstitute on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and our blog

  • Wellcome

    Wellcome exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive. We’re a global charitable foundation, both politically and financially independent. We support scientists and researchers, take on big problems, fuel imaginations and spark debate.