Researcher Dov Lank in the world's largest ruff aviary located at SFU's Burnaby campus.

Three male ruff morphs: (left to right) faeder, satellite & territorial.


May 19, 2015

SFU biologist Dov Lank and a team of researchers have identified the genes responsible for three different kinds of male ruff (Philomachus pugnax)—a species of wading bird. The ruff is the only bird species in which three kinds of males exist, each having its own approach to courtship and mating and with distinct physical characteristics. One is a fighter, the second is a “wingman” and the third is a cross-dresser. 

The paper, “A supergene determines highly divergent male reproductive morphs in the ruff” was published today in Nature Genetics. Researchers found 3.8 million years ago an inversion occurred in the chromosomes of the ruff, creating a second kind of male. Then 0.5 million years ago, a second chromosomal rearrangement between the inversion and the original sequence occurred, creating a third kind of male.

As a result, there are three types of male ruffs: one with ancestral sequences, another with an older kind of the inversion and a third with a newer kind of inversion.

Lank says, “Today we have the tools to identify exactly what genes are involved, and over the next few years we will describe how they work. These genes control differences in aggressive behavior and the expression of gender-specific traits, and the pathways and processes involved will provide a model with general applicability for vertebrates, including ourselves.”

In Canada, the National Science and Engineering Research Council, the Canada Summer Works Program and the SFU Work-Study Program funded the research. The UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the US National Science Foundation and the European Union (EU) Marie Curie fellowship also contributed funding.

Read the story in The Vancouver Sun. and listen to the interview on CBC's As it Happens.