Beaks in motion: What bird beaks can teach us about how bones, muscles and joints interact to create movement
Seemingly simple tasks such as eating or walking require the complex integration of neural signals, bones, muscles and joints to create movement. How these structural components function and interact with each other are central questions in biomechanics. Owing to their great diversity, bird beaks present an excellent model system for answering these questions. Birds have evolved a number of different strategies for using their beaks to get food, with beaks specialized for catching fish, for grazing on grasses, for prying food items from inside shells or for catching small, evasive prey such as insects. The bones, muscles and joints that produce these movements are also structurally diverse. By finding the structural differences between birds that move their beaks in different ways, we can better understand how musculoskeletal structure relates to movement. I am currently studying beak diversity within the order Anseriformes, which includes ducks, geese, swans and mergansers. Integrating biology, engineering and computer science I have found that geese have originated multiple times independently from a duck-like ancestor, evolving a feeding system that is adapted to producing and sustaining higher bite forces. With 32 additional orders of birds, continued study of bird feeding systems will likely reveal further structure-function relationships, providing rich insight into how complex musculoskeletal systems create movement.