Article Title

Genomic Insights Into Natural Selection in the Common Loon (Gavia immer): Evidence for Aquatic Adaptation

Journal Title/Source

BMC Evolutionary Biology

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Journal Article




Background: The common loon (Gavia immer) is one of five species that comprise the avian order Gaviiformes. Loons are specialized divers, reaching depths up to 60 m while staying submerged for intervals up to three minutes. In this study we used comparative genomics to investigate the genetic basis of the common loon adaptations to its ecological niche. We used Illumina short read DNA sequence data from a female bird to produce a draft assembly of the common loon (Gavia immer) genome.

Results: We identified 14,169 common loon genes, which based on well-resolved avian genomes, represent approximately 80.7% of common loon genes. Evolutionary analyses between common loon and Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae), red-throated loon (Gavia stellata), chicken (Gallus gallus), northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), and rock pigeon (Columba livia) show 164 positively selected genes in common and red-throated loons. These genes were enriched for a number of protein classes, including those involved in muscle tissue development, immunoglobulin function, hemoglobin iron binding, G-protein coupled receptors, and ATP metabolism.

Conclusions: Signatures of positive selection in these areas suggest the genus Gavia may have adapted for underwater diving by modulating their oxidative and metabolic pathways. While more research is required, these adaptations likely result in (1) compensations in oxygen respiration and energetic metabolism, (2) low-light visual acuity, and (3) elevated solute exchange. This work represents the first effort to understand the genomic adaptations of the common loon as well as other Gavia and may have implications for subsequent studies that target particular genes for loon population genetic, ecological or conservation studies.