Secret of Darwin's 'violin-playing bird' revealed

The club-winged manakin, which was described by Darwin in his book on sexual selection called The Descent of Man, uses its wings to produce a baleful humming sound to attract a mate. It is the first time that ornithologists have filmed the "wing song" of the small South American bird as it beats its wings 100 times a second - twice as fast as the wing-beat of a hummingbird.

High-speed video recordings taken with a digital camera and played back in slow motion have revealed how males of the club-winged manakin, Machaeropterus deliciosus, lean forward to raise their wings behind their backs before flipping them to make the humming tune.

The sound it produces, which is described as "tick-tick-ting", is as loud as ordinary birdsong and can be heard tens of yards away. The "tick" notes are sharp, tonal clicks, whereas the "ting" is a sustained, violin-like note which lasts a third of a second.

Kimberly Bostwick of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and Richard Prum of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, describe how the manakin makes its courtship sound in the journal Science. They believe that the rapid movements of the wings, combined with the unusual structure of some of the bird's wing feathers, sets up a resonating note within the hollow shafts of the feathers.

Dr Bostwick said that the male had evolved the elaborate sound-producing mechanism because of the intense sexual competition between males of the species to attract females - the same sort to sexual selection that resulted in the peacock's tail.

"Essentially an instrument has evolved in this species, in this case a refined instrument. In general, if an adaptation is really weird and out there, it is produced by sexual selection," she said.

When the scientists studied the wings of the birds they found that each wing had one feather with a pick, or small blade, and an adjacent feather with ridges and enlarged, hollow shafts.

Each wing created its own violin-like hum as the pick feather rubbed against the adjacent ridged feather during the high-speed flapping of the wings.

"We rule out a lot of hypotheses, but when I realised that the wing feathers were twisted in a way that forced them to rub, I knew we had something," Dr Bostwick said.

Club-winged manakins breed in "leks", an arrangement where competing males display their courtship signals to females who then decide which partner to choose. This produces intense competition between males to attract a mate, with one male often mating with most females.

There are 40 kinds of manakins but not all of them use sound as the primary mating signal. One species has developed a sophisticated dance which involves gliding up to a female without appearing to move his feet.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Engineer

£21000 - £23600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Purchase Ledger & Arrears Supervisor

£22000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are an experienced super...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Web Designer

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, this leading ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss