Letter | Published:

Mega-evolutionary dynamics of the adaptive radiation of birds

Nature volume 542, pages 344347 (16 February 2017) | Download Citation

  • A Corrigendum to this article was published on 29 November 2017

This article has been updated


The origin and expansion of biological diversity is regulated by both developmental trajectories1,2 and limits on available ecological niches3,4,5,6,7. As lineages diversify, an early and often rapid phase of species and trait proliferation gives way to evolutionary slow-downs as new species pack into ever more densely occupied regions of ecological niche space6,8. Small clades such as Darwin’s finches demonstrate that natural selection is the driving force of adaptive radiations, but how microevolutionary processes scale up to shape the expansion of phenotypic diversity over much longer evolutionary timescales is unclear9. Here we address this problem on a global scale by analysing a crowdsourced dataset of three-dimensional scanned bill morphology from more than 2,000 species. We find that bill diversity expanded early in extant avian evolutionary history, before transitioning to a phase dominated by packing of morphological space. However, this early phenotypic diversification is decoupled from temporal variation in evolutionary rate: rates of bill evolution vary among lineages but are comparatively stable through time. We find that rare, but major, discontinuities in phenotype emerge from rapid increases in rate along single branches, sometimes leading to depauperate clades with unusual bill morphologies. Despite these jumps between groups, the major axes of within-group bill-shape evolution are remarkably consistent across birds. We reveal that macroevolutionary processes underlying global-scale adaptive radiations support Darwinian9 and Simpsonian4 ideas of microevolution within adaptive zones and accelerated evolution between distinct adaptive peaks.

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Change history

  • 30 November 2017

    Please see accompanying Corrigendum (http://doi.org/10.1038/nature24665). Two missing Supplementary Information files (‘Prum_merge_taxonomy_CRC_v2.csv’ and ‘PrumTreeMerge_CRC_v1.csv’) have been added to this Letter.


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We thank M. Adams, H. van Grouw and R. Prys-Jones from the Bird Group at the NHM, Tring and H. McGhie at the Manchester Museum for providing access to and expertise in the collections; S. Meiri of Tel Aviv University for providing a sample of study skins; S. Stone of MechInovation Ltd for providing training and advice on 3D scanning; M. Groves, J. McLaughlin and M. Pidd of HRI Digital for the construction of http://www.markmybird.org; A. Beckerman for advice on analysing P matrices; E. Rayfield, A. Pigot, A. Mooers and A. White for providing valuable comments on pre-submission drafts of the manuscript. Finally, we are indebted to the volunteer citizen scientists at http://www.markmybird.org for helping to build the database of bird bill shape and contribute to our understanding of avian evolution. This work was funded by the European Research Council (grant number 615709 Project ‘ToLERates’) and by a Royal Society University Research Fellowship to G.H.T. (UF120016).

Author information

Author notes

    • Christopher R. Cooney
    •  & Jen A. Bright

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK

    • Christopher R. Cooney
    • , Jen A. Bright
    • , Elliot J. R. Capp
    • , Angela M. Chira
    • , Emma C. Hughes
    • , Christopher J. A. Moody
    • , Lara O. Nouri
    • , Zoë K. Varley
    •  & Gavin H. Thomas
  2. School of Geosciences, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida 33620, USA

    • Jen A. Bright
  3. Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida 33620, USA

    • Jen A. Bright
  4. Bird Group, Department of Life Sciences, The Natural History Museum, Tring, Hertfordshire, UK

    • Gavin H. Thomas


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C.R.C., J.A.B. and G.H.T. conceived the study, designed analytical protocols, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. All authors collected and processed data and provided input to the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gavin H. Thomas.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks D. Rabosky and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data

Supplementary information

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

    This file details the mapping of Jetz et al. clades to the Prum et al. backbone phylogeny. The table shows the nodes used to attach patch clades from the Jetz et al. stage 2 Hackett tree to the Prum et al. backbone phylogeny.

Zip files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

    This archive contains data files and an R script to combine the backbone (approximately family level) phylogeny of Prum et al. with the species level resolution of the Jetz et al. avian phylogeny.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Data

    This archive contains all alternative genus level phylogenies used in the analyses.

CSV files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Data

    This file contains the source data for Extended Data Table 1.

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