Baltimore's birds attract other fans

Genetics: He's not here for sports. Kevin E. Omland, an evolutionary biologist, came to Baltimore to research raven and oriole species.

January 12, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Ravens are just one win away from the Super Bowl, and Maryland's sports bars and office water coolers are suddenly awash in Ravens experts.

And come spring, those scholars of sport will molt their purple plumage, don orange, and become authorities on Russell Street's other birds, the Orioles.

But none can top Kevin E. Omland's credentials when it comes to Baltimore ornithological expertise. Omland, an evolutionary biologist hired in October by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, studies ravens and orioles exclusively - the lower-case variety, that is. The sort with feathers.

Omland has discovered evidence that ravens in California are genetically distinct from those everywhere else. One of their distinctions is their fondness for Dumpster-diving.

And his genetic examination of oriole species throughout the New World has helped to buttress the Baltimore oriole's recently regained status as a distinct species. And he has traced the birds' ancestry to Mexico.

Omland has never seen the Ravens play, and he's only been to Oriole Park once. But his absence from Baltimore stadiums is not really his fault. He's from Vermont. "I grew up a Red Sox fan," he says.

He's not a big football fan, either. But he promises to do better. "I'll watch the playoffs," he says.

UMBC acquired Omland from the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoo for the 2000-2001 college season. Omland held a Smithsonian fellowship in molecular evolution.

"This department [at UMBC] has very strong researchers in molecular and cell biology," he says. "I can help them bring an evolutionary perspective to cell biology, and they can help me be more current in cell biology and apply it to evolution and behavior."

Coming to the land of upper-case Ravens and Orioles was just a coincidence. "It makes it easier for people to relate to the research we do," he says. And just maybe it will make it easier to find grant money to support his work.

Omland, 37, has admired ravens since his boyhood in Vermont, when he watched them fly high over the Green Mountains in their aerobatic courtship displays.

"They roll upside down, fall and pull out. I think they're great birds, wonderful birds to see," he says.

The species is found throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere, including the Appalachian summits, with no differences in appearance across their range.

Like their gridiron counterparts, the ravens' fortunes are improving. It could be their intelligence, or fewer potshots from people. But somehow their numbers have grown 1,000 percent in the past 30 years.

Omland and others wanted to know more. For example, whether there are genetic differences between Old World and New World ravens?

With bits of feathers, blood and tissue gathered from 72 far-flung ravens, (Omland will stoop to scoop roadkill for science) he and a team of colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey and other institutions began to extract and sequence their DNA.

They used mitochondrial DNA, from the cell's energy factories, because it is believed to mutate or evolve much more rapidly than DNA in the cell's nucleus.

That makes it ideal for measuring the relatively brief times since closely related species began to evolve separately.

Omland and his colleagues reported in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, that - with one surprise exception - ravens from Maine to Murmansk, Russia, are a throroughly mixed genetic lot. They were not geographically distinct.

The exceptions were 28 ravens from California. They looked identical to the northern ravens, but their DNA was 4 percent different.

Mitochondrial DNA is believed to mutate at a steady rate of about 2 percent every million years. If so, the California ravens would seem to have split off from their northern cousins two million years ago.

Perhaps Ice Age glaciers eliminated ravens from much of the Northern Hemisphere, isolating one group in a refuge centered on California, Omland suggests.

Then, as the climate warmed, ravens from Asia may have recolonized the north.

"A scenario like this would be consistent with the pattern we found," Omland says. But it doesn't explain why the California ravens have remained genetically distinct.

Any barriers that kept the northern ravens and their genes out of California during the Ice Ages would seem to be long gone.

"Like all fun science," Omland says, the ravens research "raises more questions than it answers."

It could be the California birds are uniquely adapted to a desert habitat. All of their DNA came from birds sampled in the Mohave Desert, but further studies are needed to find the true limits of their range.

Or, it could be their adaptability. Most ravens are aloof birds of the wilderness. Those in California, however, are happy around people, and especially drawn to their garbage and roadkill.

No parallel to football players there. But what about Omland's orioles?

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