Birds of paradise: photos and a great video

December 3, 2012 • 11:35 am

The Guardian‘s environment section features eight beautiful pictures of the birds of paradise, a group comprising 40 species in the family Paradisaeidae.  They’re mostly limited to New Guinea, but a few occur in Australia or on other islands. The Guardian site explains the photos:

On a mission to become the first to document all 39 species of birds of paradise, the photographer Tim Laman and ornithologist Ed Scholes have spent nearly a decade sleeping in tents and dangling from the rainforest canopy. Their work will be featured on Secret Birds of Paradise on 6 December at 8pm on Nat Geo Wild

Here are four of the photos. The last, Wilson’s bird of paradise, is the most bizarre!

Victoria's Riflebird bird of paradise. Photograph: Tim Laman/National Geographic
Victoria’s Riflebird bird of paradise. Photograph: Tim Laman/National Geographic
Adult male King of Saxony bird of paradise. Photograph: Tim Laman/National Geographic
Adult male King of Saxony bird of paradise. Photograph: Tim Laman/National Geographic
Red bird of paradise. Photograph: Tim Laman/National Geographic
Red bird of paradise. Photograph: Tim Laman/National Geographic
Wilson's bird of paradise. Photograph: Tim Laman/National Geographic
Wilson’s bird of paradise. Photograph: Tim Laman/National Geographic

And, to top it off, here’s a fantastic video showing some of the species featured in the National Geographic documentary (filmed with assistance of the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology). It aired November 22, but I wasn’t aware of it. You really need to watch this to see what bizarre features and behaviors can result from sexual selection.

Of course, in none of these cases do we know the precise form that sexual selection took. That is, was it set off by a pre-existing female preference that differed among already-formed species?   Was it due to the “runaway process,” the “good genes model,” or perhaps “antagonistic sexual selection”? Do we know whether exual selection caused the species to form in the first place from a common ancestor (other reproductive barriers might have been completed before the sexual differences evolved).

Understanding how such morphologies and behaviors arose is one of the hardest questions in evolutionary biology, for we’re trying to reconstruct evolutionary forces that operated in the distant past. And there are many different theories of how sexual selection gets started, and few ways to distinguish among them in a given case.

h/t: Matthew Cobb

18 thoughts on “Birds of paradise: photos and a great video

  1. Beautiful pictures. I remember watching Attenborough’s doco on birds of paradise a few years ago (“Attenborough in Paradise” if I remember correctly?). They immediately became some of my favourite birds anywhere, together with bowerbirds, another case of bizarre behaviour which we have to thank sexual selection for.

  2. There’s a famous story about an Australian solder in World War II, slogging uphill through the mud in the New Guinea jungles. His native guide points out a bird on a tree.

    “What’s that?” says the soldier.
    “It’s a bird of paradise.”
    “Bloody long way from home, isn’t it?”

  3. If you’ve been going to ornithology meetings for the past 10 years or so (you haven’t? why not?) you’ve seen lots of Ed’s talks on this subject, always with cool movies.

    But I have to take issue with one claim: that birds of paradise are unique. There are other equally bizarre plumages and displays scattered around birds, and though birds of paradise are an unusually concentrated set of examples within a single small clade, even that isn’t quite unique. I think the manikins could match them weirdness for weirdness quite well.

  4. I couldn’t resist thinking of how much fun a cat would have with those tail feather and antenna thingies bobbing around. Truly beautiful birds though.

  5. Stunning photos. The BBC Planet Earth series has amazing video of birds of paradise — and shows the behind the camera view of how hard it is to get those photos. Really good stuff.

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