|Blue-tailed-Emerald, Chlorostilbon mellisugus. Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen|
Hummingbirds are unique amongst birds in living off nectar and being able to detect sweetness. Typically, hummingbirds only feed from flowers with nectar containing more than 10% sugars. The way this evolved illustrates a couple of basic principle of diversification by evolution and the lack of a directing intelligence or plan behind it. Something else for creationists to misrepresent, lie about or ignore but never, under any circumstances, face up to.
The sense of taste and smell are intimately linked and, so far as detection of different odours, pheromones and basic tastes like bitterness are concerned, involve a group of genes which are highly flexible across species being lost or gained according the species-specific ecology. New receptors typically arise by gene duplication and mutation with new capabilities which convey an advantage quickly being incorporated into the species genepool.
|Ruby-throated hummingbird, Archilochus colubris.|
All known birds, including hummingbirds, lack T1R2 so should be unable, using the 'normal' detection process, to detect sweetness and yet the ability to detect sweet nectar would appear to be essential to hummingbirds and something that would be expected to set them apart from other birds.
|Purple-throated Carib, Eulampis jugularis. Photo: Charles J. Sharpe.|
This paper by Baldwin et al, published in Science a few days ago, suggests a mechanism by which this happened:
Sensory systems define an animal's capacity for perception and can evolve to promote survival in new environmental niches. We have uncovered a noncanonical mechanism for sweet taste perception that evolved in hummingbirds since their divergence from insectivorous swifts, their closest relatives. We observed the widespread absence in birds of an essential subunit (T1R2) of the only known vertebrate sweet receptor, raising questions about how specialized nectar feeders such as hummingbirds sense sugars. Receptor expression studies revealed that the ancestral umami receptor (the T1R1-T1R3 heterodimer) was repurposed in hummingbirds to function as a carbohydrate receptor. Furthermore, the molecular recognition properties of T1R1-T1R3 guided taste behavior in captive and wild hummingbirds. We propose that changing taste receptor function enabled hummingbirds to perceive and use nectar, facilitating the massive radiation of hummingbird species.
Maude W. Baldwin, Yasuka Toda, Tomoya Nakagita, Mary J. O'Connell, Kirk C. Klasing, Takumi Misaka, Scott V. Edwards, and Stephen D. Liberles;
Evolution of sweet taste perception in hummingbirds by transformation of the ancestral umami receptor;
Science 22 August 2014: 345 (6199), 929-933. [DOI:10.1126/science.1255097]
Incidentally, I wrote about the discovery of a fossil believed to be the first example of a nectivorous bird only last May, in Closing The Gaps - Early Bird Shows Evolution. This fossil was found to have pollen grains and, possibly significantly if it was transitional between swifts and hummingbirds, the remains of insects in its stomach.
|Kunstformen der Natur, plate 99: Trochilidae, Ernst Haeckel 1904|
(Drawn from specimens. Body postures are fanciful)
We also see an explosive radiation of new species and a burst of evolution as this allowed a species with this new ability to exploit new niches that it opened up, each occupying a unique niche in the form of a new mutually beneficial relationship with flowering plants as their main pollinator species. As these relationships became more and more specialised, the selection pressure to evolve barriers to interbreeding would have increased, so enhancing the tendency for speciation. Barriers to interbreeding between closely related species of birds almost always include changes in plumage which forms part of mating rituals, so we see a proliferation of plumage, just as we would expect.
But what we don't see in any of this is an intelligent plan. Why would an intelligent creator do away with the ability to detect sweetness in an early dinosaurian ancestor of birds and then re-invent it millions of years later instead or retaining it or using the same method for hummingbirds that it had supposedly designed for mammals and even the remote ancestors of birds? Did it not know it was going to design hummingbirds to feed on nectar?
Instead, what we see is exactly what we would expect to see as the product of a mindless, purposeless, unintelligent process lacking any foresight or ability to plan ahead. In other words, we see no evidence of design or intelligence but lots of evidence for Darwinian evolution by natural selection.
By the way, the standard pre-primed reflexive "that's microevolution, not macroevolution" argument can't be used here because we are discussing the evolution not even of varieties or subspecies, or even a new species; we are discussing the evolution of a whole family of birds and over 100 genuses which forms a major branch of the avian order. And we are discussing how this came about as the result of a relatively small change in the genome of a swift.
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