Posted on 29 April 2016
Birds’ beaks evolving characteristic shapes to eat different food is a classic example of evolution by natural selection.
However, research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found this does not apply to all species, and that raptors in particular have not enjoyed this evolutionary flexibility.
Researchers used a method that allowed them to statistically quantify variation in the shape of predatory bird skulls and see how this shape variation compared with size, what the birds ate and how they are related to each other.
Dr Jen Bright, Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Sheffield and lead author of the study, said: “Our results show that in birds of prey such as eagles and falcons, the shapes of the skulls change in a predictable way as species increase or decrease in size. The shape of the beak is linked to the shape of the skull, and these birds can’t change one without changing the other.
“We think that being able to break this constraint - letting the beak evolve independently from the braincase, may have been a key factor in enabling the rapid and explosive evolution of the thousands of species of songbirds such as Darwin’s finches and Hawaiian honeycreepers”.
Professor Emily Rayfield, Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol and project lead, said: “Our research does not cast doubt on Darwin’s ideas, far from it. Instead it demonstrates how evolution has constrained raptor skulls to a particular range of shapes.”
Jesus Marugán-Lobón, of the Autonomous University of Madrid and co-author of the paper, said: “Basically, if you’re a bird of prey and you’re small, you look like a tiny falcon, and if you’re a bird of prey and you’re large, your skull looks like a vulture.”
The team are now keen to extend and test their ideas in other groups of birds.
Dr Sam Cobb, Senior Lecturer in Anatomyat the University of York and project lead, said: “Our results are important because they may help us identify one of the driving factors behind the outstanding diversity of bird species we see in the modern world.”