Live evolution in the backyard

Impact story

Live evolution in the backyard

Through genetic research on great tits, a team of researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Ecology (NIOO-KNAW) and Wageningen University & Research and four British universities tracked down evolution in action. In addition to a publication in Science, it also resulted in a great deal of media attention.

Dutch and English great tits

Dutch and English great tits are identical, at least almost. Only the beaks are not equally long. In England, birds have been fed by people on a large scale in the winter for a century. Great tits with slightly longer beaks can probably access this feed more easily. In any case, the long-beaked tits have more success: they raise more chicks.

Visits to the feeding station

Over 3000 great tits from the Netherlands and England were screened for genetic differences by researchers of WUR Animal Breeding & Genomics and NIOO-KNAW. The selection traits of Dutch and English great tits were almost identical, except for the 'beak genes'. Using transmitters, the researchers were able to establish that English birds with a longer beak actually visit a feeding station more often.

Ongoing adaptation

The adaptation of the English birds is still ongoing at present: the beaks are continuing to grow on average. Because Dutch birds are now also being fed on a large scale, the question is whether Dutch great tits will also grow longer beaks.