The avian beak is a specialized structure that birds rely on for everything from feeding to nesting. The diversity of bill shapes and sizes also clearly demonstrates that a one-size-fits-all approach does not apply. Have you ever wondered how birds evolved bills or why they differ so dramatically across the species?
Evolution by natural selection is the scientifically accepted explanation for the remarkable diversity of life on Earth, including the bird’s bill. This gradual process saw the first feathers and beaks develop on dinosaurs and then on birds, and it still works on avians all over the world today.
In this guide, we’ll explore how and when avians evolved their bills and learn some of the driving forces behind the variety of bird bill sizes and shapes.
We tend to think of dinosaurs as giant, scaly animals that went extinct millions of years ago. However, you may be shocked to learn that birds are dinosaurs. That’s right, birds are living avian dinosaurs, although the ‘Jurassic Park’ type dinosaurs (non-avian dinosaurs) are long-extinct.
You may also be surprised to learn that features typically associated with birds evolved in many dinosaurs. For example, some massive, four-legged Sauropods may have had beaks to support their vegetarian diet.
Birds evolved roughly 160 million years ago from a clade of dinosaurs called theropods. The fossil record suggests these bipedal (two-legged) dinosaurs existed from about 230 - 66 million years ago. Despite their early evolution, it wasn’t until much later that birds developed toothless beaks.
Scientists are not exactly sure why birds gave up their toothy jaws for beaks. One popular theory is that beaks are lighter than teeth and help birds shave off some extra weight for better flight. However, some researchers suggest that dinosaur bills evolved to aid their herbivorous diet or even as a time-saving mechanism to decrease egg incubation times.
Whatever the cause, the loss of the toothed jaw does not appear to have disadvantaged birds. You only have to look at their abundance and diversity to see that! Continue reading to learn about the first avian bills.
Long believed to be the ‘first bird,’ Archaeopteryx lived about 150 million years ago and had well-developed flight feathers, indicating it could glide well or even fly. Unlike modern birds, these transitional species had jaws and teeth rather than bills.
The earliest bird beak yet discovered belonged to a bird that lived over 50 million years after Archaeopteryx. A primitive seabird known as Ichthyornis dispar is the first known bird species to have a beak, although its rhamphotheca (bill covering) was limited to the tips of the jaws.
Fast forward from Ichthyornis 95 million years ago to about 2 million years ago when a small songbird from the Tanager family colonized a remote island archipelago. This began a process of speciation that would radically shift our understanding of life on Earth. Read on to learn about the discovery of Darwin’s Finches.
A portrait of a juvenile White-faced Ibis.
In the year 1886, naturalist Charles Darwin returned from a nearly five-year expedition around the world. During the voyage, he visited the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, where he collected specimens of thirteen finch species, each with different bill shapes, ranging from small and delicate to very large and robust.
After his return to England, Darwin had the specimens examined by ornithologist John Gould, and they were each identified as separate species. He realized that each of these birds had evolved their unique bills in response to the types of food available on their islands, and this was important evidence for his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Genetic research suggests that a bird known as the Dull-colored Grassquit, Tiaris (now Asemospiza) obscura, is the closest relative of Darwin’s Finches and perhaps the species they evolved from. After making it to the archipelago, these pioneering songbirds had to adapt to the different habitats and food sources on each Island, resulting in natural selection for different bill shapes to suit their varied diets.
The Large Ground Finch (Geospiza magnirostris), for example, evolved a thick conical bill for crushing seeds, while the Grey-warbler Finch (Certhidea fusca) evolved a small beak for feeding on insects and spiders. The birds are an excellent example of a phenomenon known as adaptive radiation. This process begins with a single, ‘flexible’ species that diversifies into several others as populations adapt to new environments and resources.
A Dull-colored Grassquit. Genetic research suggests that a bird known as the Dull-colored Grassquit, is the closest relative of Darwin’s Finches and perhaps the species they evolved from
Birds use their bills for everything from building nests to communicating and even maintaining their body temperature. However, diet has the most obvious impact on bill shape. The hooked beak of a raptor is ideal for tearing flesh, but it can’t compare with the conical bill of a Sparrow when it comes to crushing seeds.
Birds and their bills are largely shaped by their diet and environment, so you may be wondering why avians continue to evolve over 150 million years after their appearance on the planet. Surely, each species has had enough time to adapt to every available niche by now, right?
Put simply, environments change over time, and so do the food sources that are available to birds that live in them. This can cause physical changes to bird bills and other anatomy as they adapt to survive.
The following elements (acting alone or in combination with each other) may contribute to the evolution of bird beaks:
A White-tailed Hawk. The hooked beak of a raptor is ideal for tearing flesh
A House Sparrow. The conical bills of sparrows are perfect for crushing seeds
Studying the evolution of bird beaks combines various fascinating disciplines, including everything from paleontology to ethology and even genetics. Let’s take a look at some important recent discoveries.
A paper published in 2018 by an international research team describes the exciting discovery of the earliest known bird beak. Although the fossil specimen of Ichthyornis dispar was discovered about 150 years ago, CT scan technology has now shown that the species had a small beak at the tip of its jaws.
A fossilized specimen of Janavis finalidens discovered in 1990 has shed light on the evolution of the modern bird beak. The species, which existed about 66 million years ago, had a bill very similar to the birds we see today, including a moveable upper jaw.
Researchers studying Darwin’s Finches have discovered the gene responsible for the evolution of their varied bill shapes. In the study, the authors reveal that this gene (ALX1) is still present in each of the 15 living species, highlighting its flow between species and its role in facilitating new feeding and foraging strategies.
The evolution of bird bills continues today, sometimes at a rate visible in a single human lifetime. A 2017 study on Great Tits (Parus major) in the United Kingdom has found that the local population has significantly longer bills than their mainland relatives, likely due to their adaptation to feeding at garden bird feeders. The researchers have discovered that a specific gene (COL4A5) is responsible for the rapid variation.
A Great Tit. A 2017 study on Great Tits (Parus major) in the United Kingdom has found that the local population has significantly longer bills than their mainland relatives
From the toothy jaws of the Archaeopteryx to the first ‘modern’ bird bill of Janavis, the evolution of the beak in prehistoric birds was a gradual process shaped by various factors, including diet, genetics, and changing climates.
Darwin’s Finches have proved that natural selection and adaptive radiation in new environments can cause massive changes in bill morphology relatively quickly, and we know these processes continue today, even in the suburban backyards of the United Kingdom!
Studying evolution gives us fascinating insights into the early history of birds, but it also teaches us about how modern-day birds have come to be and how they may be affected by the changes in their environment.
The birds of the future are evolving today, and understanding the pressures that act on species could be key to protecting them through this brief moment in time.
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