The evolution of colourful eggs

It is great to see Kiara’s paper now published in Evolution (it can be found here). The paper is focused on the evolution of colour in eggs and uses the Australian passerines to provide insight into the emergence of pigmented eggs in different branches of the family tree. The passerines, are the songbirds, and they make up about half of the world’s species of bird today. This group first evolved in Australia, and the continent is still home to the largest number of passerine families, and can provide insight into what was happening early in the radiation of the group.

In this study we characterised the egg colour variation across different families of Australian songbird, and were able to identify that the ancestral egg colour in the passerine group was most likely to be white, and that pigmented eggs emerged independently in a number of different branches of the family tree over time. Importantly, this seems to have happened after the ancestors of the different families evolved open nests. This makes sense, because the pigment likely evolved to help protect the now exposed eggs from predators and from solar radiation.

This paper builds nicely on the earlier comparative work that was started with Jordan Price, when he visited on sabbatical and Daisy Englert Duursma.

Fig 2. from L’Herpiniere et al 2021, showing how the evolution of colour in the eggs of different species, maps nicely on to the distribution of closed and open nests across the phylogeny of Australian passerines.

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