Nav: Home

How the development of skulls and beaks made Darwin's finches one of the most diverse species

February 03, 2020

Darwin's finches are among the most celebrated examples of adaptive radiation in the evolution of modern vertebrates and now a new study, led by scientists from the University of Bristol, has provided fresh insights into their rapid development and evolutionary success.

Study of the finches has been relevant since the journeys of the HMS Beagle in the 18th century which catalysed some of the first ideas about natural selection in the mind of a young Charles Darwin.

Despite many years of research which has led to a detailed understanding of the biology of these perching birds, including impressive decades-long studies in natural populations, there are still unanswered questions.

Specifically, the factors explaining why this particular group of birds evolved to be much more diverse in species and shapes than other birds evolving alongside them in Galapagos and Cocos islands have remained largely unknown.

A similar phenomenon is that of the honeycreepers endemic to the Hawaiian archipelago. These true finches (unlike Darwin's finches which are finch-like birds belonging to a different family) radiated to achieve an order of magnitude more in species and shapes than the rest of the birds inhabiting those islands.

An international team of researchers from the UK and Spain tackled the question of why the rapid evolution in these birds from a different perspective.

They showed in their study published today in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution that one of the key factors related to the evolutionary success of Darwin's finches and Hawaiian honeycreepers might lie in how their beaks and skulls evolved.

Previous studies have demonstrated a tight link between the shapes and sizes of the beak and the feeding habits in both groups, which suggests that adaptation by natural selection to the different feeding resources available at the islands may have been one of the main processes driving their explosive evolution.

Furthermore, changes in beak size and shape have been observed in natural populations of Darwin's finches as a response to variations in feeding resources, strengthening these views.

However, recent studies on other groups of birds, some of which stem from the previous recent research of the team, have suggested that this strong match between beak and cranial morphology and ecology might not be pervasive in all birds.

Professor Emily Rayfield, from the University of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, co-authored the new study. She said: "Other factors such as constraints on skull shape during development, the use of the beak for many other functions and the fact that the skull and beak develop and function as a coherent unit may have contributed to this mismatch.

"Therefore, the strong connection between beak, cranial morphology and feeding ecology over the evolution of Darwin's finches, Hawaiian honeycreepers, and perhaps other lineages of birds, might have been only possible if this tight coevolution of cranial regions is somehow 'relaxed' and those regions are able to evolve more freely."

Lead author Guillermo Navalón, recently graduated from a PhD at the University of Bristol and now a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Oxford, added: "By taking a broad scale, numerical approach at more than 400 species of landbirds (the group that encompasses all perching birds and many other lineages such as parrots, kingfishers, hornbills, eagles, vultures, owls and many others) we found that the beaks of Darwin's finches and Hawaiian honeycreepers evolved in a stronger association with the rest of the skull than in most of the other lineages of landbirds.

"In other words, in these groups the beak is less independent in evolutionary terms than in most other landbirds."

Jesús Marugán-Lobón co-author of the study and Lecturer at the Autonomous University of Madrid, said: "We found that as a result of this stronger cranial integration, these birds could evolve in a more versatile way but mostly constrained along a very specific direction of adaptive change in the shape of their skulls.

"Paradoxically, we hypothesised that this allowed them to evolve many different shapes very rapidly, filling many of the available niches in their archipelagos as a result."

In contrast, the authors asserted that the other sympatric bird lineages that occupied the island archipelagos at similar time to the ancestors of finches and honeycreepers all belong to the group with the lowest cranial integration in their study and suggest that this was a limiting factor for rapid evolution in other lineages.

Guillermo Navalón added: "While these results are exciting, this is mainly the work of my PhD and at the minute we are working on solving different unanswered questions that stem from this research.

"For instance, are these evolutionary situations isolated phenomena in these two archipelagos or have those been more common in the evolution of island or continental bird communities? Do these patterns characterise other adaptive radiations in birds?

"Future research will likely solve at least some of these mysteries, bringing us one step closer to understanding better the evolution of the wonderful diversity of shapes in birds."
-end-
Paper: 'The consequences of craniofacial integration for the adaptive radiations of Darwin's finches and Hawaiian honeycreepers' by G. Navalón, J. Marugán-Lobón, J. Bright, C. Cooney and E. Rayfield in Nature Ecology & Evolution

University of Bristol

Related Evolution Articles:

Artificial evolution of an industry
A research team has taken a deep dive into the newly emerging domain of 'forward-looking' business strategies that show firms have far more ability to actively influence the future of their markets than once thought.
Paleontology: Experiments in evolution
A new find from Patagonia sheds light on the evolution of large predatory dinosaurs.
A window into evolution
The C4 cycle supercharges photosynthesis and evolved independently more than 62 times.
Is evolution predictable?
An international team of scientists working with Heliconius butterflies at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama was faced with a mystery: how do pairs of unrelated butterflies from Peru to Costa Rica evolve nearly the same wing-color patterns over and over again?
Predicting evolution
A new method of 're-barcoding' DNA allows scientists to track rapid evolution in yeast.
Insect evolution: Insect evolution
Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have shown that the incidence of midge and fly larvae in amber is far higher than previously thought.
Evolution of aesthetic dentistry
One of the main goals of dental treatment is to mimic teeth and design smiles in the most natural and aesthetic manner, based on the individual and specific needs of the patient.
An evolution in the understanding of evolution
In an open-source research paper, a UVA Engineering professor and her former Ph.D. student share a new, more accurate method for modeling evolutionary change.
Chemical evolution -- One-pot wonder
Before life, there was RNA: Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich show how the four different letters of this genetic alphabet could be created from simple precursor molecules on early Earth -- under the same environmental conditions.
Catching evolution in the act
Researchers have produced some of the first evidence that shows that artificial selection and natural selection act on the same genes, a hypothesis predicted by Charles Darwin in 1859.
More Evolution News and Evolution Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.