By Guillermo Navalon
Darwin’s finches are among the most celebrated examples of adaptive radiation in the evolution of modern vertebrates and their study has been relevant since the journeys of the HMS Beagle in the eighteenth century which catalysed some of the first ideas about natural selection in the mind of a young Charles Darwin.
Despite many years of study which have 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.
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. We showed in their study published 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.
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.
Many questions remain: 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.
Guillermo Navalón is lead author of the study and a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Oxford's Department of Earth Sciences, having recently graduated from a PhD at the University of Bristol.