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The American Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus).

American Bald Eagle Sequenced

Researchers at The Genome Institute in collaboration with Dr. Erich Jarvis, Duke University, have sequenced the genome of the American bald eagle – the symbol of the United States of America.

The bald eagle was chosen June 20, 1782, as the emblem of the United States of America, because of its long life, great strength and majestic looks, and because it was then believed to exist only on this continent.

One popular story describes why the eagle was used as a national emblem: “At one of the first battles of the revolution (which occurred early in the morning) the noise of the struggle awoke the sleeping eagles on the heights and they flew from their nests and circled about over the heads of the fighting men, all the while giving vent to their raucous cries. ‘They are shrieking for freedom,’ said the patriots.” —Maude M. Grant.

Not Actually Bald

Once considered a threatened species, the American bald eagle now thrives throughout the US, Canada and parts of Mexico. Despite its name, the bird is not actually bald. The term bald derives from the word piebald, meaning spotted or patched, and refers to the white head and tail feathers that contrast with the bird’s darker body. The first raptor to be sequenced, the American bald eagle belongs to the order Accipitriformes, which includes birds of prey such as other eagles, hawks and vultures.

Scientists at The Genome Institute and fellow collaborators hope to understand more about the eagle genome structure and biology, including how its extraordinary vision evolved. To gain such insights, the researchers must next analyze the genome in greater detail, a time-intensive process that is necessary for interpreting the sequence data. The sequencing and assembly, completed on July 4th, has already revealed a genome of 1.2 Gigabases in size (about one-third the size of the human genome) that has similar properties to other sequenced birds.