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How to Make a Bird Skull: Major Transitions in the Evolution of the Avian Cranium, Paedomorphosis, and the Beak as a Surrogate Hand.

June 30 , 2016

The avian skull is distinctive in its construction and in its function. Much of bird anatomical variety is expressed in the beak; but the beak itself, largely formed of the premaxillary bone, is set upon a shortened face and a bulbous, enlarged braincase. Here, we use original anatomical observations and reconstructions to describe the overall form of the avian skull in a larger context and to provide a general account of the evolutionary transformation from the early dinosaur skull—the skull of an archosaurian macropredator—to that of modern birds. Facial shortening, the enlargement of the braincase around an enlarged brain (with consequential reduction of circumorbital elements and the adductor chamber), and general thinning and looser articulation of bones are trends. Many of these owe to juvenilization or paedomorphosis, something that is abundantly evident from comparison of a juvenile early theropod (Coelophysis) to early avialans like Archaeopteryx. Near the avian crown, the premaxilla becomes dramatically enlarged and integrated into the characteristic mobile kinetic system of birds. We posit that this addition of a large element onto the skull may be biomechanically feasible only because of the paedomorphic shortening of the face; and kinesis of the beak only because of the paedomorphic thinning of the bones and loosening of articulations, as played out in reverse during the maturation of Coelophysis. Finally, the beak itself becomes elaborated as the hands are integrated into the wing. There are structural, kinematic, and neurological similarities between avian pecking and primate grasping. The ability to precision-select high-quality food against a complex but depauperate background may have permitted crown birds to survive the end-Cretaceous cataclysm by feeding on insects, seeds, and other detritus after the collapse of higher trophic levels in the food web.

Bhart-Anjan S. Bhullar, Michael Hanson, Matteo Fabbri, Adam Pritchard, Gabe S. Bever, and Eva Hoffman (2016)
How to Make a Bird Skull: Major Transitions in the Evolution of the Avian Cranium, Paedomorphosis, and the Beak as a Surrogate Hand.
Integrative and Comparative Biology (advance online publication)



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