The hornbill is a Dr. Seuss bird, an odd character with a big curving beak.
Some species are large and black, with turkey wattles on their necks. Others sport bills that are a neon lemon-lime, like some odd mango. A few have dinosaur crests on the backs of their heads. Hornbills have been known to call with an eerie human-sounding cackle.
The hornbill's range is great, with members of the Bucerotidae family found in tropical regions of Africa and Asia — more than 40 species altogether.
How closely are these diverse animals related? That's a project a couple of students researchers at Westminster College are tackling.
"We're just pulling DNA from hornbill feathers," said Brandon Steed, a senior from Salt Lake City. The biology student hopes that by comparing DNA from four different hornbill species at Tracy Aviary, they can "find out how
divergent they are from each other."
Having four different species at the local aviary is "very cool," says research adviser Judy Rogers, an associate professor of biology who also is a veterinarian and a member of the aviary's board of directors.
"Birds are easy to get DNA from because all you have to do is pluck a feather," she added.
In one case, "easy" was in the eye of the beholder. A DNA donor from South Africa, a hornbill named Whiner, was threatening when the students wanted a feather. But aviary expert Holly Seitz took Whiner under her wing, and the plucking was easy.
Whiner "wasn't very nice," said biology major Alisha Gibbons, a junior from Salt Lake City. "He wasn't a very personable bird. He knew what we were doing."
Whiner was intimidating with his huge beak. "He's a very beautiful bird — but not a good attitude," she said.
"I don't think I'd like to be in with him alone," Steed said. The bird is about 2 1/2 to 3 feet long, with a bill probably 12 to 18 inches in length, he added. "If he felt like it he could hurt you."
Possibly, some far-flung species of hornbill might not be closely related, Rogers said. When they were first classified, 100 or more years ago, scientists found they had large specialized beaks, similar breeding habits and ways of feeding chicks and other characteristics that seemed alike, so they grouped the birds together.
But looks and habits can be deceiving. With the advent of DNA typing, which can show how far particular genes have diverged after species separated from a common ancestor, a new tool became available to examine relatedness.
"There are little teensy brown mice that are more closely related to big brown rats than they are to the other little teensy brown mice," she said.
Biologists are making those types of discoveries among the feather tribe, too.
"What we're finding out now is some of the groups of the birds that have these outward characteristics that we all can see are genetically not as similar," Rogers said. "Their fundamental gene makeup is . . . different than we thought."
The aviary's hornbills are from South Africa, and the students are looking at their DNA to get an idea about how closely they are related. They also will check those results against DNA from another group, the hornbills' cousins the crows.
The students also will work with scientists in South Africa "to get tissue samples of other (hornbill) species that we do not have."
After the hornbill feather is extracted, Steed explained, the researchers grind up the base of the quill. Then, he said, "you digest it using different enzymes."
According to Gibbons, this is done with chemicals from a DNA kit manufactured by a company called Qiagen Inc. The DNA is separated with a micro-centrifuge at Westminster, and a small segment of DNA is extracted.
"We use what are called primers that will cut the DNA at a certain place," Gibbons said. Then the DNA segment is replicated through a technique called polymerase chain reaction.
The replicated DNA segments are sent through a process called gel electrophoreses, which results in the familiar streaked bands of material on large sheet negatives, which look like bar codes. A University of Utah sequencing laboratory checks to see whether the correct gene segment was extracted and to report on the makeup of the gene.
When the students compare the DNA segment for the four species, she said, "we can find out down to the basics exactly how close these species are."
Rogers agrees the project is interesting and says the students are enthusiastic about it.
However, she emphasized, "the main reason we're doing this is not to find out about hornbills. The main reason is so that these students get into the lab, learn the DNA techniques."
When they run into a scientific difficulty, they must ask themselves how they can find a way around the problem. "These students are going to walk away with a very clear idea of how we can manipulate DNA," she said.
Steed noted that he is planning to go into the field of medicine and that the project is a good start in lab practice.
The most interesting part, he agreed, is "probably just learning all the lab techniques and doing the research."