Bird lovers uncover secrets of the beak

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

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 narrower evolutionary niches.

Project lead Gavin Thomas, of the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, 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, followed by more fine scale changes.”