Lab Updates: March/April 2017

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The last couple of months have flown by with lots of goings on amongst all of us here on team MacroBird.

Data Collection

Throughout March, we were joined by two postgraduate students from the department of Animal and Plant Sciences, both undertaking projects utilising the data we are collecting from museum specimens.
As part of their research projects, both Jade and Sarah spent a few weeks with us at the Natural History Museum in Tring.

JadeJade’s project is looking at plumage diversity across parrots (the family Psittacidae)- one of the largest groups in our taxonomy. The photography side of our project has been initially focussing on the passerines, so this was also our first attempt at imaging birds outside this group using our current setup. Whilst the majority of passerines fit within our small photography calibration (with some obvious exceptions- the immense tail feathers of some birds of paradise, for example), the Psittacidae encompass a huge variety in size. From the tiny hanging parrots, measuring only a few centimeters in length to the huge scarlet macaw, only just fitting within the limits of our light tent. Working our way through the family also highlighted the extraordinary spectrum to be seen within its plumage- from bright, vivid primary colours, to pastel gradients and dark ombres… just amazing.

parrots

Photographing the Psittacidae also raised a couple of interesting issues we haven’t really had to consider before. As many species of parrots have made popular pets, a fairly significant proportion of the specimens within the museum’s collections were either bred or lived in captivity. As diet can be a factor in plumage colouration, birds kept in captivity may develop colour abnormalities that could produce erroneous results if included in our dataset.parrot As such, we have had to be extra careful in interpreting the information provided on specimen labels to try and ensure only wild specimens are included in our study.

For much the same reason as their proliferation in captivity, a number of species are now classed as endangered (extinct species are not currently being included in our study), including the wonderful kakapo, but can still be included in our research thanks to the museum’s distinct E&E collection. It’s a huge privilege to work with such rare material and whilst our attitudes to collecting today have, thankfully, evolved and are now held to modern ethical standards and legislation, it does bring home the importance of preserving these existing historical collections for future research.

Furnarius rufus

Our scan of a Rufous hornero bill alongside an example of nest built by ovenbirds of this genus. Photograph by Darios Anches, CC BY-SA 2.0

SarahSarah’s work, concerned with the scanning side of our project, will be focusing on the ovenbirds (Furnariidae), a large family of primarily South American passerines, widely known for their incredible nest-building skills. Despite approaching 90% of world bird species processed for the bill component of our study, the ovenbirds have remained one of the least represented taxa in our dataset as a result of re-curation. Sarah’s project gave us the opportunity to correct this, with us successfully having now scanned every available species from the NHM’s collections. With a renewed push on scanning, this has seen a new batch of 3D scans available for landmarking on our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org for citizen scientists (old and new!) to landmark for inclusion within our study.

Alongside these individual projects, our usual data-collection has been continuing at pace. With two set-ups, able to process a wider variety of specimen sizes, we have been steadily working our way through all possible passerine families. Ranging from birds of paradise to weavers, parrotbills to waxbills over the last few weeks alone, our completion percentage has seen a real jump to:

22,047 specimens photographed: we are selecting up to 6 specimens of each species, both male and female
132,480 photos taken: six photographs- dorsal, ventral and lateral in both UV and human visible spectrums- of every selected specimen (with a few additional ones for extra large birds)
Approaching 46% of world bird species

Mark My Bird & Beak of the Week

The number of citizen scientists now subscribed to our citizen science site is around the 1700 mark and we are slowly nearing our targets. Alongside our usual day-to-day landmarking and weekly twitter competition #beakoftheweek, we also held a markmybird-athon, linking with students from the University of South Florida, where Dr Jen Bright- one of our original postdocs- is now based, for an evening of landmarking. It’s great to see how our data and website are being used to assist in teaching, engaging with science or any number of other uses people can think of.

A large portion of our data is now available in full via the Natural History Museum’s data portal, with lots more of scans available via our own website– we hope this resource will be used by others for a range of uses and to assist in answering lots of questions beyond our current study. If you’ve used our data, we’d love to hear about it!

Other News

3D printed bills

In other goings on, our group took part in the University of Sheffield’s annual Discovery Night- a brilliant opportunity to present our project to future generations of researchers. We had a great time talking about macroevolution, the values of natural history collections, the joys of 3D printing and the importance of citizen science for wide-ranging projects such as ours.

You can learn more about the event and our offering in a recent blog post, here.

 

Lastly for this month, team PhD students Angela Chira and Emma Hughes both presented posters discussing their projects and findings to-date- congratulations all round!

Angela & Emma

 

 

Mega-evolutionary dynamics of the adaptive radiation of birds

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Nature bills

The idea to 3D scan the bills of the world’s 10,000 bird species from museum collections has always seemed like an ambitious undertaking. However, after two years of data collection, months of analysis and the input of hundreds of citizen scientists, the first study resulting from our work was published in Nature last month.

This initial, wide-ranging exploration of bill diversity, compared over 2000 species from across all genera, considering the full range of present-day bill shapes.

The diversity we see in bill shape today is extraordinary and studying this characteristic can tell us a lot about species and how they interact with their environment- from foraging, hunting and eating food, to preening and nest building. Traditional methods of gathering information relating to bill form have often relied on length, depth and width measurements alone, missing many key elements of shape, such as curvature. By 3D scanning bills, we have been able to capture far more detailed information, providing a true reflection of bill diversity.

It would have been impossible to collect this information from birds in the wild so our study has been reliant on the incredible ornithology collections at Manchester Museum and the Natural History Museum in Tring. These archives of biodiversity have allowed us to create fantastically detailed models through access to such a broad variety of species, alongside curatorial expertise and work space.

One of the most novel aspects of our study was the way in which much of our initial data- the 3D scans- was processed through the input of citizen scientists from around the world. With each scan requiring landmarking by at least 3 different people, this in itself was a huge task and one that would not have been possible without such a collaborative effort. By helping us place key points and trace edges on every scanned bill, online volunteers assisted in turning these hugely complex 3D models into data that could then be analysed.

From this we have been able to highlight that the majority of bill diversification evolved quickly and, once extremes of shape were reached, the amount of change slowed down significantly as birds began to fill increasingly narrow ecological niches. As a result of this initial fast change and huge variety of form, birds have been able to exploit the equally wide range of habitats and sources of food.

The full paper can be read here and, excitingly, has also received some fantastic press attention, including a discussion of our findings with project PI Dr Gavin Thomas on both the Nature podcast and BBC Inside Science (interview starts at 20:00 minutes) – if you prefer a good listen, rather than a good read. A selection of our online coverage is listed here:

Audubon – Post-docs Dr Chris Cooney and Dr Jen Bright spoke to Audubon magazine about our findings and how they build upon our previous understanding of bill diversity.
BBC Science & Environment – ‘How birds of a feather evolved together’
New York Times – ‘Finding the Speed of Evolution in a Study of Bird Beaks’
Natural History Museum – Our study wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible ornithology collections at the Natural History Museum. This statement highlights our reliance on this resource as well as how our data can be used in the future.
University of Sheffield – A summary of our project and findings as part of the Department of Animal & Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield.

If reading about our work has caught your interest, it’s not too late to contribute. Our crowdsourcing site markmybird.org is still very much up-and-running as we continue to increase our data relating to all extant species. Whether you want to browse our scan gallery or have a go at landmarking, everyone is welcome.