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Bird beaks map climate change

Bird collection trays. Source: Australian Museum

Rebecca Tucker, Bird beaks feeling the heat of climate change, say scientists, phys.org, 28 May 2015

While the human population grapples with ways to counter the effects of climate change, Deakin University research has discovered that birds might have been working on their own solution for the past 145 years – grow bigger beaks.

The scientists, led by Dr Matthew Symonds, have discovered a pattern between increased climatic temperatures and an increase in the size of the beaks of species in southern and eastern Australia.

“Birds use their beaks to keep themselves cool. Just as an elephant’s ears help to act as a fan to keep the animal cooler, birds can pump blood to their highly vascularized bills, enabling them to lose excess heat when they get hot,” Dr Symonds said.

The researchers examined 410 bird skins, collected between 1871 and 2008 and located at Museum Victoria, the Queensland Museum, the South Australian Museum and the Australian National Wildlife Collection, Canberra.

They found that four of the five species examined had measurably bigger beaks now than they had in the 19th Century.

“In an earlier study we found that birds in hotter climates had bigger beaks than those in cooler climates, which prompted us to look at whether there has been an increase in beak size generally as the climate has got hotter over the past century,” Dr Symonds said.

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