August Updates: A charm of hummingbirds!


Species level coverage: 42.87%

Species level coverage: 42.87%

Data Collection in Tring: 3D Scanning

We should finish our target of scanning a species from every genus over the coming month. The remaining specimens needed will require us to recalibrate one of our scanners, the MechScan, to a larger scanning volume. The final genera to target will be those whose species are locked away in the Extinct and Endangered collection.

Our main achievement this month has been to finish scanning every available hummingbird genus – the third largest avian family (according to our taxonomy) after tyrant-flycatchers and parrots! One of the species we came across was the tooth-billed hummingbird (Androdon aequatorialis), which as its name suggests has a beak filled with small tooth-like serrations – very different from the other hummingbirds we have scanned so far!

3D scan of a tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides skull

3D scan of a tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) skull

At present, we have been unable to obtain scans for 60 genera. Most often these have been obscure monotypic genera with only one species that are missing from Tring’s collection. This seems to be the case for neotropical groups like the ovenbirds and tyrant-flycatchers. Other genera we have been unable to scan are those with very ‘fluffy’ species, for example owls, frogmouths and nightjars. Groups such as these pose a particular problem because the feathers around the beak hide important landmarks at the top and sides of the upper mandible which are essential for downstream analyses. Thankfully these problematic groups are in the minority. Even so, we have scanned all available skulls from these groups from the skeleton collection as an alternative.

To date we have scanned:

  • 4284 (42.87%) of species
  • 1913 (91.49%) of genera
  • 2138 (35.72%) of passerines
  • 2143 (53.22%) of non-passerines

Mark My Bird

We have set our launch date for our new crowdsourcing website ‘Mark My Bird’ as the 21st September! Mark My Bird is a web-based landmarking platform that will greatly speed up the process of post-processing our 3D scans. Keep an eye out on our website and twitter feed for updates on how to get involved!
Markmybird 4


This month Gavin gave a talk describing the divergence and macroevolutionary pathways that generated the diversity of avian bill morphologies, at the Systematics Association Biennial conference at the University of Oxford Museum of Natural History (26-28th August 2015).


Emma spent a week adding to Chris C’s spectrophotometric measurements of bird plumage to improve coverage across the avian radiation, with the aim being to capture the extremes of avian plumage ‘colourspace’.

Twitter and #BeakoftheWeek

We had two new winners in our weekly #BeakoftheWeek competition – well done to Will and Patrick. You can always check out the Beak of the Week leaderboard to see previous winners, beaks and blogs about each species. And remember – you’ve got to be in it to win it!

The Lammergeier (Gpyaetus barbatus)


Lammergeier 1

Lammergeier in flight

A recent #BeakoftheWeek favourite and a creature of many names, the Lammergeier, Bearded Vulture or Ossifrage (“bone breaker”) is an intriguing bird in many ways.  Not only does it have a rather extravagant method of preparing its food, it is also a bit of a fan of bronzing up to improve its image. If that is not enough to pique your interest then it is surrounded by myth and legend, something we at team Macrobird are rather fond of.

In Iranian mythology the Lammergeier is a symbol of luck and happiness, and if its shadow falls upon someone it is believed that they will rise to sovereignty. In Southern Europe they sometimes feed on tortoises and there have been tales of unfortunate balding men being confused with rocks and coming a cropper to these reptilian projectiles dropped from above. Aeschylus, a Greek playwright, is believed to have been killed by one of these cheeky chaps dropping a tortoise on his head in around 455BC, a rather dramatic way to go even for one so fond of theatrics.

Where does the Lammergeier get all its names from? Well I think the bearded vulture is fairly self explanatory with “facial hair” that gives you a good insight into how carefully this species takes care of its appearance. Its fondness for lambs explains why it is call the Lammergeier as it means ‘lamb vulture’ in German.

As mentioned earlier this species has a rather special way of preparing its food, to break it down to a manageable size, leading to it being known as the Ossifrage/bone breaker.  Bones make up up to 90% of their diet which is supplemented by carcasses of small and medium sized animals such as rodents, small carnivores and reptiles.  They eat both the bones and bone marrow and in order to get the pieces small enough to ingest they have to get creative.  I thought you’d enjoy the dulcet tones of Sir David explaining the process of their bone dropping antics rather than reading about it, so have a watch of the video below to learn more.

If you have watched the video you might be wondering how they manage to digest these bones in order to obtain nutrients.  Fortunately for us some lovely scientists have figured out that it is due to the high acidity (~1 on pH scale) of their stomachs which allows them to break down bones over a period of 24 hours.  Here is the paper if you fancy some further reading.

This species is rather fond of keeping up appearances and they maintain their orange appearance by rubbing minerals (iron oxide particles) into their feathers through sand bathing or wall-rubbing.  This paper discusses this in more detail.  Further to their fanciful looks is their facial feathers which are rather unique as most other vulture species have featherless heads, something that is discussed in the King Vulture blog article.  If you need some grooming tips, here is a nice video of one having a preen.

Feeding time

Feeding time

Amazingly its impressiveness does not stop there.  It is one of the largest vultures with a wingspan of up to almost 3 metres, stands around 4 feet tall and weighs up to 7kg.  It goes on… Adults have home ranges that can be thousands of km2 and can fly at heights of 8,000m up above the Himalayas.  I think I have finally run out of ‘impressive Lammergeier facts and feats’.

They are monogamous and make their nests on cliffs lined with wool and other material such as animal hair and skin.  Up to 2 eggs are laid which hatch after about 54 days after which one chick will be killed by the aggressive older sibling.  The chick will fledge after 103-133 days and will usually first breed at around 10 years of age.  Individuals have been known to live over 40 years in captivity.

This species is listed as ‘Near Threatened’ on the IUCN redlist due to rapid population decline over the past 3 generations (thought to be 25-29%), although populations in Northern Spain having been rising since 1986.  The biggest threat to this species are habitat destruction and poisoning, both accidental and targeted, and collisions with power lines and wind turbines.  There are thought to be 1,300-6,700 mature individuals in the wild.

The closest living relative of the Lammergeier is the Egyptian Vulture which split away from it over 20 million years ago.  You can explore this species and other closely related ones by checking out this OneZoom link.  Shoot over to Xeno Canto, the avian version of spotify, to have a listen to this species and click here to see where you can spot them potentially tossing bones and tortoises about on a sunny afternoon (range map).


BirdLife International 2014. Gypaetus barbatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015.2. <>. Downloaded on 10 August 2015.

BirdLife International (2015) Species factsheet: Gypaetus barbatus. Downloaded from on 11/08/2015

Orta, J., de Juana, E., Marks, J.S., Sharpe, C.J. & Garcia, E.F.J. (2015). Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2015). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 10 August 2015

Images & Videos

Feeding time” by Francesco Veronesi is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Lammergeier in flight” by Noel Reynolds is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

funvidpg. 2015. BBC Life Lammergeier. Online. 12/08/2015. Available from:

Lab Updates July 2015


Data Collection in Tring: 3D Scanning

We are nearing our target of scanning a species from every genus!

Phylogeny showing genus level coverage >87.61%:   Purple=Scanned, Yellow=Not Scanned

Phylogeny showing genus level coverage: 87.61%
Purple=Scanned, Yellow=Not Scanned

Our main focus this month has been to continue with scanning a species from every genus. We have now sampled over 87% of genera – up from 70% in June. One of the families we worked through this month was the long-tailed tits (Aegithalidae), which included the pygmy tit (Psaltria exilis). With a beak length of just under 5.5mm, it has the smallest beak we have scanned to date!

We also spent a couple of days scanning species of genera that are held in the restricted extinct and endangered collections, such as the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), giant ibis (Thaumatibis gigantea) and the Philippine eagle (Pithecophaga jefferyi).

Our large scanner, the R3X, spent a week tackling all the remaining species housed in the large skins collection (minus three cassowary and rhea species).

To date we have scanned:

  • 4197 (42.00%) of species
  • 1832 (87.61%) of genera
  • 2084 (34.93%) of passerines
  • 2110 (52.40%) of non-passerines

Mark My Bird

Thank you very much to everyone who tested out our new data crowdsourcing website and provided such valuable feedback. The final few tweaks are currently being made and (fingers crossed) the website will be going live at the start of September – exciting! Mark My Bird is  a web-based landmarking platform that will greatly speed up the process of post-processing our 3D scans. Keep an eye out on our website and twitter feed for updates on how to get involved!


Jen gave a talk at the Craniocervical Systems in Vertebrates conference in Ghent, Belgium (7th-10th July 2015) and bought back some lovely Belgian sweets for us all to enjoy.


Unrelated to birds entirely, Jen was the third author on a paper about fish (available here). The study was led by University of Bristol PhD student Lucy Brunt, and used an engineering method called Finite Element Analysis (usually used to test the strength of things like bridges and cars) to look at how muscle forces affect jaw development in zebrafish. It’s important for developing animals (humans included!) to use their muscles in order to develop proper joint shapes, and this study showed how cell and joint growth can go wrong if the muscles aren’t working properly.

The beautiful plumage of the himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus )

The beautiful plumage of the himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus)


Back in Sheffield, Jen has also been busy landmarking more bird beaks that will eventually be used to build an initial ‘bill morphospace’. In contrast, Chris C has been focusing on bird feathers rather than bills by taking spectrophotometric measurements of bird plumage colouration in an attempt to capture the extremes of avian plumage ‘colourspace’ – very cool! The Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus) and the vulturine guineafowl (Acryllium vulturinum) are just two of the species that Chris has found which have rather unusual plumage colouration.

Twitter and #BeakoftheWeek

We are nearing 500 followers on twitter! We had four new winners in our weekly #BeakoftheWeek competition – well done to Alison, Beth, TD James and Keith. You can always check out the Beak of the Week leaderboard to see previous winners, beaks and blogs about each species. And remember – you’ve got to be in it to win it!


Himalayan monal (Lophophorus impejanus) by Francesco Veronesi is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0