The shapes of bird beaks are highly controlled by nondietary factors

Jen Bright, Samuel Cobb, Jesús Marugán-Lobón, Emily Rayfield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

114 Citations (Scopus)
406 Downloads (Pure)


Bird beaks are textbook examples of ecological adaptation to diet, but their shapes are also controlled by genetic and developmental histories. To test the effects of these factors on the avian craniofacial skeleton, we conducted morphometric analyses on raptors, a polyphyletic group at the base of the landbird radiation. Despite common perception, we find that the beak is not an independently targeted module for selection. Instead, the beak and skull are highly integrated structures strongly regulated by size, with axes of shape change linked to the actions of recently identified regulatory genes. Together, size and integration account for almost 80% of the shape variation seen between different species to the exclusion of morphological dietary adaptation. Instead, birds of prey use size as a mechanism to modify their feeding ecology. The extent to which shape variation is confined to a few major axes may provide an advantage in that it facilitates rapid morphological evolution via changes in body size, but may also make raptors especially vulnerable when selection pressures act against these axes. The phylogenetic position of raptors suggests that this constraint is prevalent in all landbirds and that breaking the developmental correspondence between beak and braincase may be the key novelty in classic passerine adaptive radiations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5352-5357
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2016


  • Geometric Morphometrics
  • Integration
  • Allometry
  • Birds
  • Modularity


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