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Passenger pigeons were a formidable flock until they weren't and scientists now know why

For tens of thousands of years, passenger pigeons darkened North American skies and deafened us with their cries. But the birds, once five-billion strong, died out in record time.

Passenger pigeons once ruled the skies. Now they are no more.

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Passenger pigeons once ruled the skies. Now they are no more.

For tens of thousands of years, passenger pigeons darkened North American skies and deafened us with their cries. But the birds, once five-billion strong, died out in record time thanks to 19th-century human hunters. Now scientists who went digging through dusty museums think they know why.

The old assumption was that large populations tend to be diverse.

But passenger pigeons were all almost exactly the same. In fact, they evolved that way for a good reason. The similarities enabled them to thrive in large groups, growing to be the most abundant birds in North America in their prime.

That is, until a threat came along: human hunters.

The pigeons couldn't adapt to living in smaller groups. The Achilles heel of one was the Achilles heel of all.

The findings, presented in the Nov. 17 edition of Science, were based on studies conducted on old passenger pigeon specimens stored in museums, including Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum.

Fun fact: On Sept. 1, 1914, Martha, the last-known passenger pigeon, died in a Cincinnati Zoo at the age of 29.

SCIENCE STORY: Nothing Prize

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The journal European Neuropsychopharmacology is offering a 10,000-Euro prize, the first of its kind, for achieving nothing. It celebrates negative results: studies that do not support the original hypothesis (i.e., the drug being tested didn't do anything). Often, disappointing results get buried, resulting in wasted money, lost time and a biased body of research.

SOUND SMART: Polymorphism

Andres Plana/Metro

Definition: A polymorphism is a genetic trait that varies across the species, like eye colour or blood type.

Use it in a sentence: Deborah said she had gold eyes. Quite a polymorphism!

WATCH: What can passenger pigeons tell us about how to stop the extinction of bananas? Genna Buck has the answers. Watch live on facebook.com/metrocanada on Friday at 12 p.m.

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