Birds of paradise

Did you know we offer a Winter School course in Communicating Science? If you’re interested in science writing for both specialist and non-specialist audiences, presenting to communicate science and the use of emerging online social media in science communication, this is a great course for you. If you’re interested, check out “Communicating Science” in course outlines for more details.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be showcasing blog posts written by Communicating Science students during their course last year. The next blog in the series is “Birds of paradise” by James Deboar.


Probably one of the first times that I can really remember being interested in science and really wanting to question the world around me is due to a documentary that David Attenborough filmed in 1996 called Attenborough in Paradise. The documentary showed these really strange and bizarre creatures and I just couldn’t even contemplate why such a thing existed. These creatures have stuck with me and are something that I still want to find out more about.

These strange and bizarre creatures are a group of birds known as the birds of paradise. This documentary was the first time that some of these birds where ever recorded on camera.

The birds of paradise are a group of birds that are part of the family Paradisaeidae. They are only found in New Guinea and Eastern Australia and the family contains only 41 species. Birds of paradise are part of the Passeriformes which make up half of the bird species worldwide and pretty much all of the birds in Australia.

What makes the birds unique and what really drew them to them as a young child is that they are a little bit ridiculous. The males of the have sexually dimorphic features and behaviours (that is, different to the females). The males also have some adaptations which really are just a little odd. The best summary has to come from the man himself in referring to the different species:

“ …each more bizarre than then the last” – David Attenbrough

The male birds have developed adaptations in the form of differing plumages, which serve no purpose other than for attracting mates. New Guinea lacks any large predators for the birds so they have been able to adapt without any consequence (Flannery, 1990).

Brilliant feathers

All birds are covered in feathers these feathers are important for flight and maintaining body temperature. When looking up these birds of paradise in any book you see these amazing pictures of the birds with some different looking plumes.

Above: illustration of the male ribbon-tailed Astrapia

Above: illustration of the male ribbon-tailed Astrapia

The ribbon-tailed Astrapia has a tail, which about three times longer than the body of the bird and boast the biggest tail to body ratio. Every year these feathers, like those of every other species of bird, will molt and need to regrow.

What is interesting to think about is that these birds probably wouldn’t have developed such an interesting mating technique if it wasn’t for the lack of predators in their habitat. This is probably why we don’t really see a lot of these type of adaptations in other birds. This adaptation is thought to be of solely of sexual selection rather than natural selection. These extra feathers are not for flight or maintaining body temperature but solely for attracting mates.

Sexual dimorphism

What is really interesting to look at is the difference between the male and female birds. None of female birds have similar adaptations to the males. This gives us information about why these adaptations are important and how they may have been selected for in an evolutionary sense.

Above: illustration of the Goldie's bird-of-paradise. Female is on the left and the male is on the right

Above: illustration of the Goldie’s bird-of-paradise. Female is on the left and the male is on the right

The Paradisaea decora, also known as the Goldie’s bird-of-paradise, is another bird in this family with some interesting feathers but a real difference can be seen between the male and female birds. The female bird is the smaller bird on the left. The bird doesn’t really have all that exciting of a feather configuration. The male on the other hand has this amazing red plumage. This plumage once again is solely there just to attract females. Without this amazing plume the bird wouldn’t attract any mates and wouldn’t be able to procreate. By the female birds only choosing the males with big plumes this increases the likelihood of the next generation also having big blooms, which is the basis of adaptation by sexual selection.

My personal favourite bird-of-paradise is the lesser bird of paradise (below). Unlike the Astrapia and Goldie’s bird of paradise the extended plumage is not just one type of feather but two very distinct types of feathers. The range of weird and wonderful plumage present in the birds of paradise is really amazing spectacle. I really suggest you check out some of the other birds and their weird adaptations.

Above: illustration of the male lesser bird of paradise

Above: illustration of the male lesser bird of paradise

Don’t worry, it gets more bizarre!

So the birds of paradise have some pretty amazing (and weird) feathers but one of the other adaptations that they have developed is an interesting way to use these feathers. The superb bird-of-paradise uses its feathers in what can only be explained as some of the strangest dance moves in the whole of the animal kingdom (see images below). The bird has adapted to have extra feathers around its neck to be able to attract mates by waving these around.

 

The greater bird-of-paradise also has some pretty funky dance moves proving that, even in the bird world, it’s good to have some skills other than looking good.

Further Reading

If you would like to read more about the birds of paradise the Australian Museum has a great site with a whole heap of more info.

Attenborough has gone onto make another documentary, which is also worth a view.

Just for a bit of fun check our Attenborough being interrupted by a greater bird-of-paradise.

References

  • Flannery, Timothy (1990). Mammals of New Guinea. Carina, Australia: Robert Brown and Associates.
  • http://australianmuseum.net.au/william-t-coopers-birds-of-paradise

 

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