September 24, 2012

In birds' development, researchers find diversity by the peck

New investigation of tissues and signaling pathways in finches' beaks reveals surprising flexibility in the birds' evolutionary toolkit

It has long been known that diversity of form and function in birds' specialized beaks is abundant. Charles Darwin famously studied the finches on the Galapagos Islands, tying the morphology (shape) of various species' beaks to the types of seeds they ate. In 2010, a team of Harvard biologists and applied mathematicians showed that Darwin's finches all actually shared the same developmental pathways, using the same gene products, controlling just size and curvature, to create 14 very different beaks.