Don’t Call It a Seagull!

People assume there’s only one kind of “seagull.” But really, the world is home to dozens of gull species spanning an array of shapes, sizes, plumage patterns, behaviors, and lifestyles – and some of those gulls aren’t affiliated with the sea at all.

The pattern of similarities and differences between species poses an interesting taxonomic challenge. How can we figure out where each species fits on the gull family tree? Up through the twentieth century, we tried to reconstruct evolutionary history by comparing superficial traits. But as we discovered along the way, such traits can be misleading.

In the past couple of decades we’ve developed a much more reliable window into the evolutionary past: rather than comparing outward characteristics, we’re comparing genes. Our taxonomic efforts not only deepen our knowledge of the so-called seagull, but enrich our relationship with the planet we all share.

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