Understanding evolutionary rates on the (avian) tree of life

Our main current project aims to understand the causes and consequences of phylogenetic and geographical variation in rates of trait evolution. This project is funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant and will ask whether:

  • Macroevolutionary evolutionary rates are passed from ancestor to descendent on the tree of life
  • Rates of trait evolution could be used to predict rates of speciation
  • Whether the rates of trait evolution have geographic gradients

To answer these questions, we are making extensive use of the incredible avian study skins collection from the NHM at Tring as well as smaller but valuable research collections (including the University of Manchester Museum). We are collecting data from all extant species on:

  1. Bill morphology using 3D scanning
  2. Plumage colour using human visible and ultraviolet spectrum photography

Updates on project progress will be posted on the blog and via our twitter feed.


A global phylogeny of birds

Most of our lab projects rely on time-calibrated phylogenetic trees. Along with Walter Jetz, Arne Mooers, Jeff Joy and Klaas Hartmann we compiled the first attempt at a complete, time-calibrated  phylogenetic tree for all the world’s birds. As with any phylogenetic tree, it is a working hypothesis but provides a framework for many types of comparative analysis. We are currently revising the tree in the light of new data and exciting genomic advances that are changing our understanding of the early radiation of birds.

To download various versions of the tree(s) and to keep up date with revisions heard over to

The tree has been used as part of the Zoological Society of London’s Edge of Existence project with data based on our (open access) paper on conserving the evolutionary distinctness of the world’s birds. One of our visualisations of the tree (see below) featured in the ‘Beautiful Science‘ exhibition at the British Library – pretty cool for figure hacked together in R.