MacArthur Fellows Program

Richard Prum

Ornithologist | Class of 2009

drawing from developmental biology, optical physics, and paleontology to address central questions about avian development, evolution, and behavior.

Title
Ornithologist
Affiliation
Yale University
Location
New Haven, Connecticut
Age
48 at time of award

Richard Prum is an ornithologist who draws from a wide spectrum of disciplines, including developmental biology, optical physics, molecular genetics, phylogenetics, paleontology, and behavior ecology, to address central questions about bird development, evolution, and behavior. Through careful study of the morphology and molecular control of feather development, Prum deduced a five-step sequence of genetic adaptations that plausibly accounts for the evolution of contemporary feather structure. This theory ties bird origins closely to a group of dinosaurs known as therapods and contrasts with an alternative hypothesis of feather derivation from modified reptile scales. Subsequent discoveries in the fossil record have supported his theory. He has also devoted much attention to the mechanisms of color production in feathers. Collaborating with applied mathematicians, Prum demonstrated that the blue coloration in feathers is due to coherent light scatter (rather than pigmentation), a finding that applies to some other species such as certain butterflies and reptiles as well. Though much of his work centers on feathers, he also employs his expertise in avian anatomy to examine, for example, the relationship between vocal apparatus morphology and bird song behavior. Through careful fieldwork, he has gathered promising evidence that phylogenetic relationships among bird species can be inferred or substantiated by comparative behavioral studies. Whatever the phenomenon under study, Prum habitually synthesizes concepts from disparate fields and follows surprising paths to reach carefully reasoned conclusions. His research to date raises the profile of ornithological studies in several fundamental aspects of biology, and he continues to open new frontiers with each subsequent project.

Richard Prum received an A.B. (1982) from Harvard University and a Ph.D. (1989) from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He is the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, where he also serves as curator of ornithology and head curator of vertebrate zoology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. He was previously affiliated with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas (1991-2003).

News About this Fellow
May 29, 2017
"Challenging Mainstream Thought About Beauty’s Big Hand in Evolution"
The New York Times
Manu Prakash, 2016 MacArthur Fellow
Richard Prum, 2009 MacArthur Fellow
May 8, 2017
"The Truth About the Way Ducks Mate is Terrifying"
News.com.au
Richard Prum, 2009 MacArthur Fellow
November 20, 2015
"In conversation: Richard Prum and Carl Zimmer"
Yale Daily News
Richard Prum, 2009 MacArthur Fellow
October 15, 2015
"The Tree of Life for Birds Comes into View"
The Boston Globe
Richard Prum, 2009 MacArthur Fellow
October 21, 2014
"Ornithologists Map Family Tree of Mysterious Cotinga Birds"
Science News
Richard Prum, 2009 MacArthur Fellow
June 2, 2013
"The Evolution of Beauty: Richard Prum at TEDxYale"
TEDx Talks
Richard Prum, 2009 MacArthur Fellow
April 5, 2013
"Ornithologist is Reshaping Ideas of How Beauty Evolves"
From Discover
Richard Prum, MacArthur Fellow, 2009
View all news

Photos

Photos are owned by the MacArthur Foundation and licensed under a Creative Commons license: CC-BY.
Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Right-click on a link below to save the file to your computer.


More Fellows

View All 2009 Fellows

Stay Informed
Sign up for periodic news updates and event invitations. Connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.