Friday, July 24, 2009

Another Role for the Bill of the Toucan

The bill of the Toucan has always been one of its signatures and naturalists have puzzled over it for several centuries. According to a story by Hadley Leggett in Wired:
Scientists have been intrigued by the oversize toucan bill for centuries. In 1780, French naturalist Georges-Louis Buffon called it a “grossly monstrous” appendage, and Darwin puzzled over its potential role in sexual selection in The Descent of Man. Toucans have the biggest beak-to-body ratio of any bird on the planet, but no one has figured out why the animal evolved a bill one-third the length of its body.
Enter modern science:
Now, using infrared thermography, a type of temperature-sensing video originally developed by the U.S. military, scientists have tracked the pattern of heat distribution across the toucan’s body under changing outside temperatures. When the bird got too hot, it released heat by sending blood to its highly vascular but uninsulated beak. In cooler weather, the toucan constricted blood vessels in its beak to conserve heat and stay warm.
This would be a great selective advantage for the bird and allow it to colonize areas that other tropically-based birds would not be able to. This kind of science likely doesn't fall under the "Eureka" kind of discovery, as much as the "That's funny..." kind, to paraphrase Isaac Asimov. Neat.

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