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Will Smith awarded ZSL Charles Darwin Award and Marsh Prize

20 October 2020

Congratulations to Will Smith (Biological Sciences, 2016) who has won this year’s ZSL (Zoological Society of London) Charles Darwin Award and Marsh Prize, awarded for an outstanding zoological research project by an undergraduate at a UK university.

His project was entitled, ‘Are wild rock doves in the British Isles distinct from feral domestic pigeons? A phenotypic and genetic analysis’. It looked at the feral pigeon Columba livia (which is the pigeon we see in cities all the time) and compared their appearance and genetics to their ancestor, the rock dove. ‘The rock dove is said to be found in isolated regions such as the Scottish Isles,’ Will explained. ‘I caught many pigeons from across the UK, with the help of bird ringers from the British Trust for Ornithology, and showed that there are big differences between the two – and that it is possible to distinguish between them. The rock dove is endangered and threatened by interbreeding and genetic dilution from feral pigeons, so hopefully this information will help further studies to explore how rock doves might be protected.’

Will was supervised by Dr Annette Fayet, with help from Prof. Steve Kelly for the genetic work. ‘I also received lots of general support in doing such an independent project from Dr Lindsay Turnbull who was my main tutor,’ he added.

Will is now doing a DPhil at Queen’s, which builds on this undergraduate project. ‘I’m using DNA analysis to look at hybridisation between feral pigeons and rock doves to locate the rock dove populations that are most free of interbreeding. Unadulterated populations of rock doves would be really valuable, as the domestic pigeon is an important model organism in biology – so to be able to compare it to its ancestor would be super useful in understanding various biological processes.’

Image below: a rock dove in the field