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ToLERates Report Summary

Project ID: 615709
Funded under: FP7-IDEAS-ERC
Country: United Kingdom

Mid-Term Report Summary - TOLERATES (Understanding evolutionary rates on the Tree of Life in time and space)

Biological diversity is the product of billions of years of evolutionary history that is interconnected on the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life is shaped by variation in rates of, and limits to, evolutionary change. In trying to understand the origins of diversity, George Simpson posed the question “How fast, as a matter of fact, do animals evolve in Nature?” Addressing this question has potentially far-reaching consequences, yet we know surprisingly little about the role of evolutionary rates, and phenotypic rates in particular, at broad phylogenetic and temporal scales. Consequently, we do not have a detailed empirical understanding of the ecological or evolutionary causes of rate variation, nor do we understand the implications of this variation in driving evolutionary dynamics above the species level. The aim of this project is to determine the extent to which evolutionary rates vary among taxa, to test the causes and consequences of variation in rates of lineage and phenotypic evolution, to derive predictions on the interconnections between these major axes of evolutionary divergence, to describe for the first time the global spatial distribution of rates of trait evolution, and to test the correlations between trait divergence, evolutionary rates and spatial distributions of species richness on a global scale. Using novel data on the three dimensional shape of bird beaks, collected from thousands of museum specimens and quantified using a bespoke crowd-sourcing approach (, we have quantified the macroevolutionary dynamics of this global fauna. We have found that the diversity of beaks, a proxy for the ecological niche, expanded into a remarkable diversity of forms early in the evolutionary history of living birds. The major outcome of the project so far is to show that this expansion in diversity is marked by major jumps between distinct ecological types. By using data on ecologically relevant traits from a large globally distributed animal taxon, our results help to resolve how the diversity of major groups arises over timescales spanning millions of years.

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United Kingdom
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