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Guided evolution? Bird brains predate birds

fossil ‘saur vs. woodpecker/ AMNH/A, Balanoff


Birds can be distinguished from other living reptiles by their brains, which are enlarged compared to body size. This “hyperinflation,” most obvious in the forebrain, is important for providing the superior vision and coordination required to fly. But scientists are increasingly finding that features once considered exclusive to modern birds, such as feathers and the presence of wishbones, are now known to have first appeared in non-avian dinosaurs. The new study provides more evidence to add the hyperinflated brain to that list.

“The story of brain size is more than its relationship to body size,” said coauthor Gabriel Bever, an assistant professor of anatomy at the New York Institute of Technology. “If we also consider how the different regions of the brain changed relative to each other, we can gain insight into what factors drove brain evolution as well as what developmental mechanisms facilitated those changes.”

File:Archaeopteryx lithographica (Berlin specimen).jpg
Archaeopteryx/H. Raab

Of course, it could all just be an accident. But …

The researchers also examined another factor that is important to flight in modern birds: a neurological structure called the wulst, which is used in information processing and motor control. The team identified an indentation in the digital brain cast of Archaeopteryx [a bird-like dinosaur] that might be homologous to the wulst seen in living birds. But this indentation is not found in non-avian dinosaurs that have bigger brains than Archaeopteryx, presenting the research team with a new question to explore in the future.


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