Til bevillingsoversigt

Bird evolution in three dimensions - understanding biological diversity from museum collections

Carlsberg Foundation Reintegration Fellowships


The staggering variation in the observable characteristics of living organisms (known as phenotypes) is one of nature’s most awe inspiring features. Phenotypic variation includes features such as the size of an organism, or the structure of physical features (e.g. beaks, feet, wings), with the diversity of these characters arising from millions of years of evolutionary history. To better understand the evolutionary processes that generate these integrated structures, I will comparatively study the bird skeleton. Using museum specimens representing the major bird groups, I will take x-ray scans in order to generate 3D models of their entire skeletal form. Through comparative analysis of this data, I will determine the origin and evolution of skeletal diversity among living bird groups.


Quantifying the patterns and processes that have given rise to the vast phenotypic diversity of major organismal groups, is of huge importance to provide critical knowledge that can facilitate the conservation of life on Earth. However, a serious obstacle towards achieving this goal has been that although phenotypes evolve as whole integrated units, scientists are generally restricted to quantifying their variation in only a limited number of characters. In my fellowship, I will directly address this issue, by comparatively studying the evolution of the entire bird skeleton. In doing so, I aim to provide an important bridge between cutting edge x-ray technology, 3D modelling and natural history collections.


Forming a collaboration between the Technical University of Denmark and the Natural History Museum of Denmark, I will use x-ray scanning technology to produce 3D models of the internal bone structures of bird museum specimens preserved in alcohol. Following this, I will generate a pioneering data set associating whole organism skeletal morphology with the genomes of the associated species. Using comparative methods, I will subsequently assess the origination and diversification of the entire bird skeleton among major groups.


The bird collections maintained at the Natural History Museum of Denmark represent Danish natural and cultural heritage. The 3D images produced during this project will create a digital record of avian museum specimens, which will have a timeless legacy for the research and education of future generations. The approach employed by this project has enormous potential for public outreach, and crucially to demonstrate to broader society what a natural history collection can and should represent in the digital age.