Why Do Birds Have Such Crazy Beaks?


Image: MOTHERBOARD
Image: MOTHERBOARD
A citizen science project measured over 2,000 bird beaks to help figure out why they’re so crazy looking.

By Daniel Oberhaus | MOTHERBOARD

When Charles Darwin made his now infamous trip to the Galapagos Islands in the early 19th century, he made a trivial observation that would nevertheless end up profoundly changing our understanding of the natural world. He noticed that the beak shapes of birds differed drastically from island to island. For example, cactus finches had longer, pointed beaks than ground finches, and warbler finches had thinner and more pointed beaks than both. The question, of course, was what led to this variation and pondering this question would eventually lead Darwin to the theory of evolution for which he is now famous.

Yet 180-odd years after Darwin circumnavigated the globe on the HMS Beagle, researchers are still investigating how bird beaks came to be so diverse. Most recently, researchers at the University of Sheffield have enlisted the public’s help in measuring 3D scans of bird beaks from over 2,000 species kept in London’s Natural History Museum and the Manchester Museum. Based on this crowdsourced data, the researchers hoped to discover how bird beaks evolved over time.

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