Mangrove Birds Have Bigger Beaks

January 1, 2011 by Gregory Gough

Scientist have known for some time that birds that live island-dwelling birds have larger beaks than their closest relatives on the mainland. A recent discovery found that sparrows living in North American salt marshes also have larger beaks than their inland relatives. And now a third habitat can be added to the list of those that harbor birds with big beaks.

Rhizophora mangle (Red Mangrove),  Name: Marcos Guerra,  Date: 2000s

Scientists compared 13 species of songbirds that live their entire lives in mangroves (the tropical equivalent of the salt marsh) to their closest relatives that live inland. They found that the mangrove birds had larger beaks than their relatives.

So why do birds in these habitats evolve bigger beaks? These 3 diverse habitats do have something in common. Although there are quite a few individual birds present, there are not very many different kinds.

It is possible that there is reduced competition between different kinds of birds which may open up more foraging niches, making a large beak more useful. It is also possible that a larger beak allows a male to outcompete other males for the female's attention.

Scientists are not entirely sure why these areas spur schnoz growth but now salt marshes and mangroves can be considered to be like islands, at least as far as bill size is concerned.

This article summarizes the information in this scientific paper:

David Luther and Russell Greenberg. The island syndrome in coastal wetland ecosystems: convergent evolution of large bills in mangrove passerines. The Auk 128(2): 201-204

Download scientific paper