Saturday, 4 July 2015

Evolution Conference, Brazil 2015

The perching birds (passerines) decided to have a conference to display their various adaptations. Nightingale went along to see what the other birds had been up to. However, when he got to the conference, he could not see any other nightingales; the only member of his family was a blue flycatcher, with his striking cobalt and rust plumage. In fact, none of the other passerines at the conference looked much like a nightingale at all. They all seemed to be brightly coloured.

Nightingale went to some of the displays the birds were giving. Most of them comprised dancing, or showing off their bright plumage; manakins were moonwalking and jumping up and down, birds of paradise made their usual elaborate displays, and other colourful species simply talked about how their attractive feathers helped them to find quality mates. Nightingale soon grew tired of their splendour, and wished his plumage was comparable.

At one of the mixers, Nightingale met a lyrebird. He was just as brown as Nightingale, but with long, elegant tailfeathers. "He's not so gaudy as the other lot," Nightingale said to himself. "He looks better than me, but he's still not quite there yet!" It made him feel a little better to see a brown bird. He wandered over to the lyrebird and bowed.
"Hello there," said the lyrebird. "I am Menura. What genus are you?"
"I'm Luscinia," said Nightingale. "I specialise in song," he added.
"Oh, a songster!" said Lyrebird, obviously elated. "Fantastic! There's only you, me, and Songthrush over there."
Nightingale went to Songthrush's display, and was comforted: the thrush's song was not nearly as beautiful as his own. But when he went to see Lyrebird's session, Nightingale's heart sank: the lyrebird began with a lilting melody, then incorporated beautiful and exotic sounds from the human world, and finished by imitating every bird that had come to watch him.

Nightingale was so flustered that he wanted to leave the conference. He felt so inadequate that he didn't look where he was going, and bumped into a sparrow on the way out. 
"What's wrong?" asked the sparrow, her face full of concern.
"Oh, I'm supposed to be a passerine, but I can't possibly compare to the others with their bright feathers and wonderful dances - even the dull ones can sing better than I can!" Nightingale sobbed.
"Ha! Those posers," said the sparrows. "Don't believe for a minute that you need bright colours and gaudy displays to succeed as a passerine. Sure, they work for those who use them, but you won't catch us growing sparkly feathers - we'd just get eaten!"
More and more sparrows began to crowd around the poor, crying Nightingale. They offered him tissues, and one put his wing around Nightingale's shoulders. "There are so many of you," Nightingale gasped.
"Yes! We're one of the world's most successful families of bird. We have colonised every continent except for Antarctica, although we've had a bit of help from the humans," said a sparrow.
"'re so dull coloured!" Nightingale said.
"Success isn't much to do with how bright your plumage is," said another sparrow. "It's more to do with your biology as a whole. If you've got a good well-rounded ability to adapt and survive, you'll do well, young nightingale, and have a brilliant future!"
One by one, the sparrows went back into the conference, focusing on displays of behaviour and foraging rather than the showy displays that Nightingale had been going to. Nightingale followed the sparrows, learning about their natural history, and took home plenty of ideas about how his lineage might adapt to the challenges of the future.

Bird phylogeny by Jetz et al. (2012, Nature). Species within the black line are passerines.

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