October 23, 2012

National Geographic Birds of Paradise: ‘Survival of the Sexiest’

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Modern-day explorers Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes presented photos documenting all 39 spectacular species in the birds-of-paradise family on Oct. 13 at the Statler Hall Auditorium. Although the pair only unveiled a fraction of the more than 39,000 photographs they gathered over eight years in New Guinea and its surrounding areas, each of their exquisite photos elicited “oohs” and “ahhs” from the audience of students, professors and members of the public.

 Capturing Beauty

Only a handful of seats sat empty as John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, introduced Laman, an avid tree climber and Cornell ornithologist, and Scholes, a National Geographic photojournalist and ornithologist. Together, the two documented the sights, sounds and behaviors of the fascinating birds while experiencing first-hand the processes of sexual selection that have shaped the birds’ evolution.

Laman and Scholes initially set out to document as many species of the Paradisaeidae, or birds-of-paradise, as they could in a three year time period.  But the two later convinced their funders, the National Geographic Foundation and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to let them continue their exploration for another five years so they could record photos and videos of every species in the bird-of paradise family.

“This group of birds is just so remarkable because of their extreme diversity,” Laman said.

Seductive Selection

According to Laman and Scholes, the colors, shapes and sizes seen across the 39 species, are more than just beautiful displays; — they serve as visual representations of how dramatic the processes of evolution can be because of sexual selection.

Sexual selection is a different evolutionary force than natural selection, Scholes said. While Darwin’s famous term often connotes survival of the fittest – in which individuals that are better suited to live in a certain environment produce more offspring than other, less well-suited individuals — sexual selection is based on males creating attractive behavioral displays to sway females into mating. In this sense, females drive evolution in the species. 

“You might consider sexual selection as ‘survival of the sexiest,’” Scholes said.

Sexual selection has had an immense evolutionary impact on the birds of paradise. One concept related to sexual selection is sexual dimorphism, or the physical differences between males and females that suit their respective reproductive roles. In birds of paradise, sexual dimorphism takes place in their plumage, or feathers.

In the case of birds of paradise, males play no role in parental care. Instead, they are “mating machines” because their main motivation is to reproduce with as many females as possible over their lifetime, Scholes said.

Scientists think that the males sport bright colors and unique morphologies to help attract females, which are less extravagant-appearing. Although the males are the “showy ones,” Laman said, females are a more “subtle beauty,” flaunting several shades of browns. Females show more, investment in each offspring; exhibiting great selectivity in mate choice based on physical ornamentation and behavior of the male.

 Sharing the Exploration

“For me, this [project] was a dream come true,” Scholes said.  He also said that thanks to Laman’s climbing skills, he could examine the birds from within the canopies, adding an extra perspective to his work.

“Through the lens of Tim’s camera and through the partnership with him I was able to see and access behaviors of other species of birds of paradise that had I been working on the ground like I had done for most of my research I never would have seen,” he said.

Laman and Scholes are two remarkable modern-day explorers who proceeded to do what may be considered a hallmark of exploration – sharing their findings with the public.

Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history, who teaches a class entitled “The History of Exploration,” was one professor of many who attended the presentation.

“What struck me [about the pair’s endeavors] is the way in which these modern male explorers are working with flora and fauna more so than male explorers of the past did,” Norton said.

Scholes and Laman released the photographs from their eight years studying the bird’s dazzling displays in a science book called Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds, on Oct 23.  In addition to the book, the collaboration between the National Geographic Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology will produce an exhibition opening Nov 1 in Washington, D.C., at the National Geographic Museum and a documentary  to be featured on the National Geographic Channel on Nov. 22 called “Winged Seduction: Birds of Paradise.”  

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Original Author: Paige Roosa

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