Feathers That Sing: What A Little Sexual Selection Can Do

By Carl Zimmer | November 11, 2009 9:51 am

If you ever find yourself in the forests of Ecuador, you may have the good fortune of spotting a club-winged manakin. The closest the rest of us will probably ever get will be to watch this video. But don’t just watch it. Listen.

If you said to yourself, “Hold on, is that bird singing with its wings?” the answer is yes.

As I wrote in this 2005 article in the New York Times, ornithologists have long known that a few species of manakins can make sounds with their wings. The sounds are produced by the males, as part of their courtship displays. Some make firecracker pops, and some make whooshing sounds. Darwin pointed to the sounds of manakin wings as evidence of just how much sexual selection could transform male animals as females were attracted to some mates over others.

But no one had any idea how manakins could make noises with feathers until Kimberly Bostwick of Cornell and her colleagues tackled the question. Bostwick took a high-speed camera into the jungle to film club-winged manakins. It turns out the birds flap their wings 100 times a second, far faster than typical birds. Later, she closely examined museum specimens. Club-winged manakins have one peculiar wing feather with a stiff, curved tip, right next to one with a series of ridges. Bostwick and her colleagues proposed that curved tips raked across the ridges on the neighboring feather like a spoon pulled across a washboard, producing the bird’s 1500-cycle-per-second sound.

Biologists are quite familiar with this way of making sound–but in crickets and other insects. Typically, they draw their legs across ridges on their exoskeleton, making their bodies resonate in a process called stridulation. Bostwick and her colleagues were proposing, for the first time, that a vertebrate could stridulate, too.

Since Bostwick published her first paper on the birds, she’s continued to study them to test her hypothesis. In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, she and her colleagues report a new experiment in which they looked at the physics of the manakin feathers. They clamped the feathers in a device known as a vibration mini-shaker, and then–well, as you can guess–shook them. The scientists bounded lasers off the feathers to track their wiggles as the mini-shaker vibrated faster and faster. They used the device first to measure the special spoon-and-washboard pair of feathers. Then they measured how other feathers responded, and then, finally, they studied a set of ordinary and spoon-and-washboard feathers joined together on a ligament.

The scientists found that the spoon-and-washboard feathers resonated at about 1500 cycles, just as Bostwick had predicted back in 2005. The unmodified feathers on other parts of the wing, however, showed no such response when the scientists shook them one by one. But when they shook the spoon-and-washboard feathers together with seven neighboring wing feathers, the entire set resonated strongly at 1500 cycles.

As you can see in this video, the club-winged manakin moves its entire wings upward before flapping. Bostwick proposes that the spoon-and-washboard feathers create a 1500-cycle sound, which the entire wing amplifies. This special kind of stridulation is not totally unique–the Australian whistling moth whistles by clicking castanet-like organs together, causing its entire wings to resonate. What is unique, however, is the evolution of feathers into such a sophisticated sound system.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (7)

  1. Would that human females had that much influence on the evolution of men:)

  2. Before watching or reading this, I expected it would turn out to be a wing whistle like that which male hummingbirds use to defend their territory. There was also a recent story about how pigeons and doves may use their wing noise to signal alarm.

    Molly, I strongly believe that human females have had an equally strong evolutionary role to males. Maybe it is just not as obvious or easy to see and hear. Last spring WIRED published this story: Meerkats Don’t Spoil Their Mind-Numbingly Cute Babies

    Though I probably shouldn’t extrapolate from it, I still consider that study in light of possible implications on human gender dynamics. I find it interesting that the male’s voice deepens so much more than the female’s during adolescence. I imagine that before we evolved a very sophisticated form of language that the pitch of the person’s voice co-evolved to indicate their need for protection by the strongest members of the tribe.

  3. marcel

    Are you sure that that’s singing? I’m probably revealing more than I care to about my emotional immaturity (thank god for internet anonymity), but it is reminiscent looks (& sounds) more like a man lifting the tails of his coat to pass some gas.

  4. That’s not singing. That’s the sound his cordless phone makes when the battery is about to go dead.

  5. doug

    @Molly
    Um, with respect to sex, women DO have that kind of impact on males…

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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