Birdfeeders Found to Cause Evolution of New Species


A new species of the blackcap bird soon to take flight? Image via BBC

Up until now, most people have likely regarded bird-feeders as merely a pleasant addition to their gardens. But scientists have just discovered that bird-feeders in the UK are actually having a serious long term impact on bird life--they've found that the feeders have brought about the first evolutionary step in the creation of a brand new species.According to the BBC, the European blackcap bird's natural instinct has historically been to migrate to Spain to spend their winters, where they feed on fruits and berries. But the rise of bird-feeders in the UK have changed that. Scientists discovered that blackcaps "follow a different "evolutionary path" if they spend the winter eating food put out for them in UK gardens."

A Species of Bird that Eats Only From Bird-feeders?
Those blackcaps that have opted instead to head north to the UK begun to form a brand new species of bird, all thanks to the British putting bird-feeders in their yards. The researchers report:

the team found that blackcaps that migrated to the UK for the winter were in the very earliest stages of forming a new species. [Lead researcher Dr. Shaefer] explained that some blackcaps would always have migrated "a little further north" than others and eventually ended up in Britain in the winter. But those birds would have had nothing to eat," he said. It was when garden bird feeders became more popular in the UK, that an evolutionary division began to emerge.

Since the British were providing food for the birds, that gave them a huge advantage in surviving the winter. Over time, the group of birds that didn't migrate south began to mate only with other moochers--creating the first step in the formation of their own species. The researchers had a hunch that this was precisely what was going on, that there would soon be a brand new species of blackcaps. But they needed proof. Que up the lab work:

The team were able to use a chemical "signature" from the birds' claws to identify where they spent the winter, and what food they ate. "Then we took blood samples and analysed those to assess whether... we had two distinct populations. And that's exactly what we found," said Dr Schaefer.
The new blackcaps sport different plumage, beaks, and wings. They have rounder wings thanks to the shorter trip they now make, and longer narrower beaks--the better to eat from bird feeders, of course. These evolutionary changes took place in a mere 50 years.


The European Blackcap. Photo via LiveScience
The Impact of a Bird Feeder-Created Bird
So what's the end impact of all of this--has man intruded on nature and disrupted yet another fragile ecosystem by sticking bird feeders all over the place for his own amusement? Or created a Frankenstein bird never meant for life in this world?

Thankfully, no--the scientists actually seem to think that the Brits have done the birds a favor: Dr. Schaeffer says, "[The birds have] found a better overwintering area that is closer to the breeding ground, where they can obtain food easily. And I also think its positive news for us, because it means not all the changes we produce are necessarily bad, and that some species have the potential to adapt quickly to the changes." Well, that's good to know--we humans are capable of doing a little good on this planet after all.

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Tags: Animals | Birds | Conservation

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