Regulatory Differences in Natal Down Development between Altricial Zebra Finch and Precocial Chicken

Mol Biol Evol. 2016 Aug;33(8):2030-43. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msw085. Epub 2016 Apr 26.


Birds can be classified into altricial and precocial. The hatchlings of altricial birds are almost naked, whereas those of precocial birds are covered with natal down. This regulatory divergence is thought to reflect environmental adaptation, but the molecular basis of the divergence is unclear. To address this issue, we chose the altricial zebra finch and the precocial chicken as the model animals. We noted that zebra finch hatchlings show natal down growth suppressed anterior dorsal (AD) skin but partially down-covered posterior dorsal (PD) skin. Comparing the transcriptomes of AD and PD skins, we found that the feather growth promoter SHH (sonic hedgehog) was expressed higher in PD skin than in AD skin. Moreover, the data suggested that the FGF (fibroblast growth factor)/Mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signaling pathway is involved in natal down growth suppression and that FGF16 is a candidate upstream signaling suppressor. Ectopic expression of FGF16 on chicken leg skin showed downregulation of SHH, upregulation of the feather growth suppressor FGF10, and suppression of feather bud elongation, similar to the phenotype found in zebra finch embryonic AD skin. Therefore, we propose that FGF16-related signals suppress natal down elongation and cause the naked AD skin in zebra finch. Our study provides insights into the regulatory divergence in natal down formation between precocial and altricial birds.

Keywords: altricial bird; feather evolution; natal down; precocial bird.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Chickens / growth & development*
  • Chickens / metabolism
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Feathers / growth & development*
  • Feathers / metabolism
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors / genetics
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors / metabolism
  • Finches / growth & development*
  • Finches / metabolism
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Hedgehog Proteins / metabolism
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism


  • Hedgehog Proteins
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases