The mechanisms underlying convergent evolution in the plumage patterns of birds

Change log
Gluckman, Thanh-Lan 

Convergent evolution is a central theme in biology. Birds are an ideal system to examine the mechanisms underlying convergent evolution. Although bird patterning is diverse, within-feather patterns have repeatedly converged on the same four types: mottled patterns, scales, bars and spots. Other avian patterns occur, e.g. stripes, but are rare. In my thesis I examine the four main mechanisms underlying convergent evolution in plumage patterns: evolutionary genetics, evolutionary development, natural selection for signaling and camouflage. Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) is a model system in developmental biology. Examining the developmental basis of pattern formation using molecular techniques, the dorsal patterning of embryonic quail is likely due to activation of the melanocortin-1 receptor, which is a highly conserved pathway in vertebrates. I examined whether a reaction-diffusion based theoretical model of pattern formation may predict developmental constraint in two groups that have different lifestyles and spectacular patterns: waterfowl (Anseriformes) and gamebirds (Galliformes). Tracing the evolutionary trajectory of pattern evolution with Bayesian comparative modeling there was evidence for developmental constraint in pattern evolution. Adaptive explanations may also result in convergence. Cuckoo-hawk mimicry has been demonstrated in the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) and the Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), but may be prevalent in Old World cuckoos. Randomly selecting a parasitic cuckoo from each genera of Old World cuckoos and <8 sympatric raptors, I quantified their barred patterns using digital image analysis and found that parasitism can explain convergent evolution in the patterns of parasitic cuckoos and raptors. Patterns may have evolved due to ecological selection. Examining the patterns of 80% of all avian species worldwide, I found that habitat does not predict patterning, and that all four patterns are found in all habitats. These results demonstrate that the mechanisms of convergent evolution are diverse, and that development and natural selection have contributed to pattern evolution.

Evolutionary biology, Convergent evolution, evo-devo, Behavioural ecology, Camouflage, Sexual selection, Mimicry, Molecular biology, Developmental biology, Comparative modeling, Ecological selection, Aves
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
The Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust, the John Stanley Gardiner Fund, and the Pembroke college graduate research fund.