Citizen Scientists Aid Researchers in a Study of the Evolution of Bird Beaks

Researchers collaborated with citizen scientists to develop a project that tracked the evolution of bird beaks over time. The research team enlisted the help of the public, making it possible to collect large quantities of beak measurement data. The results were just published in the journal Nature.

Citizen science is a form of research that connects scientists to the general public. Volunteers with an interest in science are trained to help take part in real research, allowing scientists to collect much more data than they’d have been able to gather with a small team. This crowdsourced data is incredibly valuable and makes it easier to conduct large-scale projects. Citizen science also gets non-scientists involved in the scientific process, aiding in public education and helping individuals better understand research methods.

Scientists from the University of Sheffield and the University of South Florida recruited volunteers from around the world to help the team study the evolution of bird beaks over time. Participants measured 3D bird beak models that had been contributed by the Natural History Museum and the Manchester Museum. In total, citizen scientists measured the beaks of over 2,000 bird species through a website called MarkMyBird. This provided the research team with enough information to begin analyzing the evolution of bird beaks. In general, the evolution of different beak lengths and shapes was consistent with a few rapid evolutionary jumps. The team wants to continue studying geometric morphometrics (shape variations) and evolutionary rates (how quickly the beaks were evolving at different points) but on a larger scale. They plan to collect information for over 10,000 bird species but will need the public’s help again.

The research team’s findings provide new insights into bird beak evolution while emphasizing the importance of citizen science. Citizen science is an emerging research method that enlists members of the public to crowdsource data. As the researchers continue to scan new beak models onto the site, they will need the help of volunteers to analyze this data.


Cooney et al. Mega-evolutionary dynamics of the adaptive radiation of birds. Nature (2017).

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