Bird lovers help scientists discover secrets of beak evolution

  • 3D scans were logged online by members of the public across the world
  • Data shows new information about the evolution of bird beaks

Citizen scientists and bird lovers across the world have helped researchers to uncover new secrets about the evolution of birds' beaks over time in a ground-breaking study.

3D scan of beak

Researchers at the University of Sheffield asked the public to help measure beak shapes from more than 2,000 bird species which have been 3D scanned from specimens at the Natural History Museum and the Manchester Museum.

Using the crowdsourced data, the team were able show that the diversity of bird beaks expanded early in their evolutionary history. The most unusual beak shapes often involved periods of exceptionally fast evolutionary change.

However, once extremes are reached, the changes to bird beaks over time became much smaller as birds filled ever-narrower evolutionary niches.

There are some examples - such as birds who have evolved in comparative isolation on remote islands such as the Galapagos and the Hawaiian archipelago - who have continued to evolve rapidly.

Gavin Thomas, the project lead from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, said: “The shape of a bird’s beak is an important indicator of the food it eats and the way it forages - its ecological niche.

“This project has given us key insight into how evolutionary processes play out over millions of years - with major bursts of evolution as new groups emerge, and more fine scale changes thereafter.

“With the efforts of our volunteers from across the world, the study has given us a unique new data set for the study of bird ecology and evolution.”

A robin being mapped

Dr Chris Cooney, from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: “The great diversity of bird beak shapes has long fascinated biologists and naturalists alike, including Darwin himself. It is wonderful to be able to use the information stored in natural history collections to shed light on how variation in this important ecological trait evolved.”

Taking measurements from animals in the wild would have been impossible but 3D models taken from specimens in natural history museums provided new scope for this detailed study.

Members of the public logged onto the website, www.markmybird.org (created by the Digital Humanities Institute, Sheffield) which allowed anyone to access 3D models of the beaks and help create this new resource of bill shapes.

Dr Jen Bright, from the University of South Florida, said: “It’s striking how much the speed of evolution changes between different birds. It’s a really dynamic process, and it means there are still lots of questions left to answer about how birds managed to come up with the range of beak shapes that they have.”

Researchers hope to discover more details of beak evolution as more beaks are mapped by members of the public from across the world.

The research has been funded by the European Research Council and by a Royal Society University Research Fellowship.

Additional Information

Paper: ‘Mega-evolutionary dynamics of the adaptive radiation of birds’ – Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature21074

European Research Council (grant number 615709 Project ‘ToLERates’) and by a Royal Society University Research Fellowship (UF120016).

The University of Sheffield

With almost 27,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2016 and was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education in 2014. In the last decade it has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

Contact

For further information please contact:
Kirsty Bowen
kirsty.bowen@sheffield.ac.uk
0114 222 1034