Citizen scientists needed to map photographs of bird plumage to understand why birds are so colourful

A UV image of a parakeet

Citizen scientists from across the globe are needed to help a team of University of Sheffield researchers map the colours of every living species of bird in the world.

Dr Gavin Thomas of the University’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and his research group have embarked on the task of photographing as many as possible of the 10,000 species of birds using specimens from the collections at the Natural History Museum to build the most comprehensive data set of its kind.

So far they have photographed more than 35,000 specimens from 7,000 species - totalling more than 210,000 images.

The team has today (Thursday 14 December 2017) launched Project Plumage on the Zooniverse platform where online volunteers can help with the task by looking at the images and mapping colour on different parts of the birds' bodies. Anyone can take part – no prior knowledge or training is needed

The data will help scientists learn more about birds and what colour evolution can tell us about the origin of species.

“Birds are remarkably diverse in colour, in fact even more so than humans can perceive. This is because birds can see all the colours that we can see and also have ultra-violet vision,” said Dr Thomas.

“Animal colour can have many functions from signalling to attract mates, to creating camouflage from predators and prey. When we think about the diversity of birds, colour is one of the most striking features. We want to learn more about how this diversity came to be and test how the evolution of different colours leads to the origin of species."

He added: “Each mapped image adds to our understanding of the diversity of birds and the incredible world of animal colouration.”

All the bird specimens used in this European Research Council funded project come from the Natural History Museum’s ornithological research collection held at Tring in Hertfordshire.

Dr Thomas added: “We are really excited about Project Plumage and the new discoveries that will emerge from the hundreds of thousands of images.

“For the last three years we have been lucky enough to be able to work in the research collection at the Natural History Museum and the data we collect will be added to the NHM’s open access Data Portal. We hope that the data we collect will add to the value of the museum collections as well as a new perspective on the diversity of birds themselves.”

Lucy Robinson, Citizen Science Programme Manager at the Natural History Museum said: “We are really excited to be collaborating with the University of Sheffield and citizen scientists all over the world on this research project. Our collection of over 80 million specimens is a valuable resource for contemporary research. This project gives people a special opportunity to see and work on bird collections that are not on public display, making new discoveries and real contributions to advancing our knowledge of the natural world."

Take part in Project Plumage