Saturday, July 25, 2009
The toucan bill as a thermal radiator: adaptation or exaptation?
Have you ever visited a rainforest in the New World, such as in Costa Rica or elsewhere in Latin America? If so, it is a great chance you have seen a toucan, those big fruit eating birds with HUGE bills (see picture above).
The function of such large bills has been quite unknown, but now a new study published in Science indicates a surprising novel function: the bill might be important as thermal radiator (bottom figure). Using a thermal image camera of similar kind as we have bought to our lab, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the many blood vessels in the bill helped to quickly cool down the bird and get rid of excess heat. The birds could actually cool down by ten degrees in only a few minutes (yellow areas are high temperature areas in the bottom picture).
This study is interesting for several reasons. First, it shows how new techniques can help to answer old questions and give new answers (sometimes quite surprising, as in this case). Second, it shows that one has to have an open mind when trying to understand the adaptive functions of traits and what traits are "for". Most people, including myself, probably thinks that the bill evolved "for" the specific purpose of efficiently picking fruit. This might very well be the case, but once the bill have reached a certain size, it can also secondarily get another function in the form of a thermoregulator.
In this context, perhaps the thermoregulatory function is simply an exaptation, i. e. not a true adaptation in the language of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould? Or perhaps the bill was further exaggerated once it had reached its "optimum" size from the perspective of fruit picking, and only the extra length is a true adaptation in the context of thermoregulation? Perhaps future phylogenetic comparative studies involving other toucan species with different bill sizes and the thermal image camera can provide some answers to these fascinating questions?
(Thanx Maren for the tip!)