How boogieing birds evolved: The work of Kim Bostwick
by the Understanding Evolution team
When ornithologist Kim Bostwick goes hunting with her binoculars, she's not just looking for birds; she's looking for untold evolutionary stories. For Kim, flashy plumage and intricate whistles still inspire 'oohs' and 'ahs,' but they also underscore the questions that have driven her research for the last 12 years: How did such strangeness evolve? What evolutionary pathways led to a bird that moonwalks for its sweetheart? Or that tickles its mate's face with its wiry tail feathers? Or whose wings produce a musical, violin-like sound?
As a curator of birds and mammals at the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates, Kim gets to indulge this curiosity every day. She is particularly intrigued by manakins, a group of 40 songbird species that live in the tropical forests of Central and South America. To attract a mate, the males of this group perform elaborate courtship rituals that include aerodynamic acrobatics, brightly colored feathers, and unusual wing-produced sounds. Among all these flashy performances, that of the club-winged manakin (Machaeropterus deliciosus) stands out for both its strangeness and its evolutionary story.