Ornithologist is Reshaping Ideas of How Beauty Evolves

After illness made him deaf to birdcalls, Richard Prum became the first to reconstruct the plumage of feathered dinosaurs and trace the evolution of feathers to beauty instead of flight.

By Veronique Greenwood|Friday, April 05, 2013

prum-1Growing up in southern Vermont, Richard Prum developed an ear for birdcalls and learned from the ladies of the local garden club how to tell a warbler from a migratory hawk. Opening a field notebook at random, the Yale University evolutionary ornithologist puts his finger on the day — Nov. 17, 1974 — when he first went bird-watching at the ocean and added 20 new species to his “life list,” bringing the count to 182. That day in the seventh grade, he says, “was the greatest of my life. I’ve spent a huge amount of effort reliving that in greater depth.”

The thrill of the hunt has never faded. After graduating from Harvard in the 1980s, he set off to study South American manakins, whose courtship behaviors had never been fully described. He spent his graduate school career, and many years beyond, constructing a family tree showing how every species of manakin had evolved. 

After a brilliant early career traveling the globe to record avian mating songs and dances, a devastating hearing loss forced Prum to set aside fieldwork. A less bird-obsessed man might have quailed, but Prum re-emerged with a string of discoveries that have reshaped the field’s understanding of such fundamental questions as what feathers are for and how mating rituals drive avian evolution.

If one trait has defined Prum’s scientific pursuits, it is his insistence on rejecting scientific dogma and finding answers from nature itself. Partly in recognition of his skill at bridging disciplines, Prum was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 2009. 

Recently, Prum sat down with DISCOVER correspondent Veronique Greenwood to discuss what gives some birds their astonishing colors; how modern birds descended from dinosaurs; and the evolutionary importance of beauty and female choice.

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