Habitat and Temperature Influence Bill Shape

March 18, 2014 by David Luther

Avian bills are iconic structures for the study of ecology and evolution, with hypotheses about the morphological structure of bills dating back to Darwin. Several ecological and physiological hypotheses have been developed to explain the evolution of the morphology of bill shape. Here, we test some of these hypotheses such as the role of habitat, ambient temperature, body size, intraspecific competition, and ecological release on the evolution of bill morphology.

Bill morphology and tarsus length were measured from museum specimens of yellow warblers, and grouped by habitat type, sex, and subspecies. We calculated the mean maximum daily temperature for the month of July, the hottest month for breeding specimens at each collecting location.

Analysis of covariance models predicted total bill surface area as a function of sex, habitat type, body size, and temperature, and model selection techniques were used to select the best model. Habitat, mangrove forests compared with inland habitats, and climate had the largest effects on bill size. Coastal wetland habitats and island populations of yellow warblers had similar bill morphology, both of which are larger than mainland inland populations. Temperate but not tropical subspecies exhibited sexual dimorphism in bill morphology.

Overall, this study provides evidence that multiple environmental factors, such as temperature and habitat, contribute to the evolution of bill morphology.

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

David Luther and Russell Greenberg. Ecology and Evolution 2014; 4(6):699–705

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