Phylogenomic evidence for multiple losses of flight in ratite birds.
ABSTRACT: Ratites (ostriches, emus, rheas, cassowaries, and kiwis) are large, flightless birds that have long fascinated biologists. Their current distribution on isolated southern land masses is believed to reflect the breakup of the paleocontinent of Gondwana. The prevailing view is that ratites are monophyletic, with the flighted tinamous as their sister group, suggesting a single loss of flight in the common ancestry of ratites. However, phylogenetic analyses of 20 unlinked nuclear genes reveal a genome-wide signal that unequivocally places tinamous within ratites, making ratites polyphyletic and suggesting multiple losses of flight. Phenomena that can mislead phylogenetic analyses, including long branch attraction, base compositional bias, discordance between gene trees and species trees, and sequence alignment errors, have been eliminated as explanations for this result. The most plausible hypothesis requires at least three losses of flight and explains the many morphological and behavioral similarities among ratites by parallel or convergent evolution. Finally, this phylogeny demands fundamental reconsideration of proposals that relate ratite evolution to continental drift.
Project description:Recent phylogenetic studies question the monophyly of ratites (large, flightless birds incorporating ostriches, rheas, kiwis, emus and cassowaries), suggesting their paraphyly with respect to flying tinamous (Tinamidae). Flightlessness and large body size have thus likely evolved repeatedly among ratites, and separately in ostriches (Struthio) and emus (Dromaius). Here, we test this hypothesis with data from wing developmental trajectories in ostriches, emus, tinamous and chickens. We find the rate of ostrich embryonic wing growth falls within the range of variation exhibited by flying taxa (tinamous and chickens), but that of emus is extremely slow. These results indicate flightlessness was acquired by different developmental mechanisms in the ancestors of ostriches (peramorphosis) and the emu-cassowary clade (paedomorphosis), and corroborate the hypothesis that flight loss has evolved repeatedly among ratites.
Project description:Acquisition or loss of flying ability is evolutionarily linked with maximum life span (MLS) in mammals and birds. Although ecological factors, such as extrinsic mortality, may lead to either shortened or extended life spans through natural selection, MLS is influenced by complex molecular and metabolic processes, and the genetic changes associated with flying ability that have led to either a longer or shorter MLS are unknown. Here, we examine the parallel evolution of flight in mammals and birds and investigate positively selected genes at branches where either the acquisition (in little brown bats and large flying foxes) or loss (in Adélie penguins, emperor penguins, common ostriches, emus, great spotted kiwis, little spotted kiwis, okarito brown kiwis, greater rheas, lesser rheas, and cassowaries) of flight abilities occurred. Although we found no shared genes under selection among all the branches of interest, 7 genes were found to be positively selected in 2 of the branches. Among the 7 genes, only IGF2BP2 is known to affect both life span and energy expenditure. The positively selected mutations detected in IGF2BP2 likely affected the functionality of the encoded protein. IGF2BP2, which has been reported to simultaneously prolong life span and increase energy expenditure, could be responsible for the evolution of shortened MLS associated with the loss of flying ability.
Project description:The origin and timing of the diversification of modern birds remains controversial, primarily because phylogenetic relationships are incompletely resolved and uncertainty persists in molecular estimates of lineage ages. Here, we present a species tree for the major palaeognath lineages using 27 nuclear genes and 27 archaic retroposon insertions. We show that rheas are sister to the kiwis, emu and cassowaries, and confirm ratite paraphyly because tinamous are sister to moas. Divergence dating using 10 genes with broader taxon sampling, including emu, cassowary, ostrich, five kiwis, two rheas, three tinamous, three extinct moas and 15 neognath lineages, suggests that three vicariant events and possibly two dispersals are required to explain their historical biogeography. The age of crown group birds was estimated at 131 Ma (95% highest posterior density 122-138 Ma), similar to previous molecular estimates. Problems associated with gene tree discordance and incomplete lineage sorting in birds will require much larger gene sets to increase species tree accuracy and improve error in divergence times. The relatively rapid branching within neoaves pre-dates the extinction of dinosaurs, suggesting that the genesis of the radiation within this diverse clade of birds was not in response to the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event.
Project description:Palaeognathae represent one of the two basal lineages in modern birds, and comprise the volant (flighted) tinamous and the flightless ratites. Resolving palaeognath phylogenetic relationships has historically proved difficult, and short internal branches separating major palaeognath lineages in previous molecular phylogenies suggest that extensive incomplete lineage sorting (ILS) might have accompanied a rapid ancient divergence. Here, we investigate palaeognath relationships using genome-wide data sets of three types of noncoding nuclear markers, together totaling 20,850 loci and over 41 million base pairs of aligned sequence data. We recover a fully resolved topology placing rheas as the sister to kiwi and emu + cassowary that is congruent across marker types for two species tree methods (MP-EST and ASTRAL-II). This topology is corroborated by patterns of insertions for 4274 CR1 retroelements identified from multispecies whole-genome screening, and is robustly supported by phylogenomic subsampling analyses, with MP-EST demonstrating particularly consistent performance across subsampling replicates as compared to ASTRAL. In contrast, analyses of concatenated data supermatrices recover rheas as the sister to all other nonostrich palaeognaths, an alternative that lacks retroelement support and shows inconsistent behavior under subsampling approaches. While statistically supporting the species tree topology, conflicting patterns of retroelement insertions also occur and imply high amounts of ILS across short successive internal branches, consistent with observed patterns of gene tree heterogeneity. Coalescent simulations and topology tests indicate that the majority of observed topological incongruence among gene trees is consistent with coalescent variation rather than arising from gene tree estimation error alone, and estimated branch lengths for short successive internodes in the inferred species tree fall within the theoretical range encompassing the anomaly zone. Distributions of empirical gene trees confirm that the most common gene tree topology for each marker type differs from the species tree, signifying the existence of an empirical anomaly zone in palaeognaths.
Project description:The patella (kneecap) exhibits multiple evolutionary origins in birds, mammals, and lizards, and is thought to increase the mechanical advantage of the knee extensor muscles. Despite appreciable interest in the specialized anatomy and locomotion of palaeognathous birds (ratites and relatives), the structure, ontogeny and evolution of the patella in these species remains poorly characterized. Within Palaeognathae, the patella has been reported to be either present, absent, or fused with other bones, but it is unclear how much of this variation is real, erroneous or ontogenetic. Clarification of the patella's form in palaeognaths would provide insight into the early evolution of the patella in birds, in addition to the specialized locomotion of these species. Findings would also provide new character data of use in resolving the controversial evolutionary relationships of palaeognaths. In this study, we examined the gross and histological anatomy of the emu patellar tendon across several age groups from five weeks to 18 months. We combined these results with our observations and those of others regarding the patella in palaeognaths and their outgroups (both extant and extinct), to reconstruct the evolution of the patella in birds. We found no evidence of an ossified patella in emus, but noted its tendon to have a highly unusual morphology comprising large volumes of adipose tissue contained within a collagenous meshwork. The emu patellar tendon also included increasing amounts of a cartilage-like tissue throughout ontogeny. We speculate that the unusual morphology of the patellar tendon in emus results from assimilation of a peri-articular fat pad, and metaplastic formation of cartilage, both potentially as adaptations to increasing tendon load. We corroborate previous observations of a 'double patella' in ostriches, but in contrast to some assertions, we find independent (i.e., unfused) ossified patellae in kiwis and tinamous. Our reconstructions suggest a single evolutionary origin of the patella in birds and that the ancestral patella is likely to have been a composite structure comprising a small ossified portion, lost by some species (e.g., emus, moa) but expanded in others (e.g., ostriches).
Project description:The ratites have stimulated much debate as to how such large flightless birds came to be distributed across the southern continents, and whether they are a monophyletic group or are composed of unrelated lineages that independently lost the power of flight. Hypotheses regarding the relationships among taxa differ for morphological and molecular data sets, thus hindering attempts to test whether plate tectonic events can explain ratite biogeography. Here, we present the complete mitochondrial DNA genomes of two extinct moas from New Zealand, along with those of five extant ratites (the lesser rhea, the ostrich, the great spotted kiwi, the emu and the southern cassowary and two tinamous from different genera. The non-stationary base composition in these sequences violates the assumptions of most tree-building methods. When this bias is corrected using neighbour-joining with log-determinant distances and non-homogeneous maximum likelihood, the ratites are found to be monophlyletic, with moas basal, as in morphological trees. The avian sequences also violate a molecular clock, so we applied a non-parametric rate smoothing algorithm, which minimizes ancestor-descendant local rate changes, to date nodes in the tree. Using this method, most of the major ratite lineages fit the vicariance biogeography hypothesis, the exceptions being the ostrich and the kiwi, which require dispersal to explain their present distribution.
Project description:Palaeognathae includes ratite and tinamou species that are important for understanding early avian evolution. Here, we analyzed the whole-genome sequences of 15 paleognathous species to infer their demographic histories, which are presently unknown. We found that most species showed a reduction of population size since the beginning of the last glacial period, except for those species distributed in Australasia and in the far south of South America. Different degrees of contraction and expansion of transposable elements (TE) have shaped the paleognathous genome architecture, with a higher transposon removal rate in tinamous than in ratites. One repeat family, AviRTE, likely underwent horizontal transfer from tropical parasites to the ancestor of little and undulated tinamous about 30 million years ago. Our analysis of gene families identified rapid turnover of immune and reproduction-related genes but found no evidence of gene family changes underlying the convergent evolution of flightlessness among ratites. We also found that mitochondrial genes have experienced a faster evolutionary rate in tinamous than in ratites, with the former also showing more degenerated W chromosomes. This result can be explained by the Hill-Robertson interference affecting genetically linked W chromosomes and mitochondria. Overall, we reconstructed the evolutionary history of the Palaeognathae populations, genes, and TEs. Our findings of co-evolution between mitochondria and W chromosomes highlight the key difference in genome evolution between species with ZW sex chromosomes and those with XY sex chromosomes.
Project description:Some biomechanical studies from fossil specimens suggest that sustained flapping flight of birds could have appeared in their Mesozoic ancestors. We challenge this idea because a suitable musculoskeletal anatomy is not the only requirement for sustained flapping flight. We propose the "heart to fly" hypothesis that states that sustained flapping flight in modern birds required an enlargement of the heart for the aerobic performance of the flight muscles and test it experimentally by studying tinamous, the living birds with the smallest hearts. The small ventricular size of tinamous reduces cardiac output without limiting perfusion pressures, but when challenged to fly, the heart is unable to support aerobic metabolism (quick exhaustion, larger lactates and post-exercise oxygen consumption and compromised thermoregulation). At the same time, cardiac growth shows a crocodilian-like pattern and is correlated with differential gene expression in MAPK kinases. We integrate this physiological evidence in a new evolutionary scenario in which the ground-up, short and not sustained flapping flight displayed by tinamous represents an intermediate step in the evolution of the aerobic sustained flapping flight of modern birds.
Project description:Emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) are exclusively terrestrial, bipedal and cursorial ratites with some similar biomechanical characteristics to humans. Their growth rates are impressive, as their body mass increases eighty-fold from hatching to adulthood whilst maintaining the same mode of locomotion throughout life. These ontogenetic characteristics stimulate biomechanical questions about the strategies that allow emus to cope with their rapid growth and locomotion, which can be partly addressed via scaling (allometric) analysis of morphology. In this study we have collected pelvic limb anatomical data (muscle architecture, tendon length, tendon mass and bone lengths) and calculated muscle physiological cross sectional area (PCSA) and average tendon cross sectional area from emus across three ontogenetic stages (n = 17, body masses from 3.6 to 42 kg). The data were analysed by reduced major axis regression to determine how these biomechanically relevant aspects of morphology scaled with body mass. Muscle mass and PCSA showed a marked trend towards positive allometry (26 and 27 out of 34 muscles respectively) and fascicle length showed a more mixed scaling pattern. The long tendons of the main digital flexors scaled with positive allometry for all characteristics whilst other tendons demonstrated a less clear scaling pattern. Finally, the two longer bones of the limb (tibiotarsus and tarsometatarsus) also exhibited positive allometry for length, and two others (femur and first phalanx of digit III) had trends towards isometry. These results indicate that emus experience a relative increase in their muscle force-generating capacities, as well as potentially increasing the force-sustaining capacities of their tendons, as they grow. Furthermore, we have clarified anatomical descriptions and provided illustrations of the pelvic limb muscle-tendon units in emus.
Project description:The origin of avian flight is a classic macroevolutionary transition with research spanning over a century. Two competing models explaining this locomotory transition have been discussed for decades: ground up versus trees down. Although it is impossible to directly test either of these theories, it is possible to test one of the requirements for the trees-down model, that of an arboreal paravian. We test for arboreality in non-avian theropods and early birds with comparisons to extant avian, mammalian, and reptilian scansors and climbers using a comprehensive set of morphological characters. Non-avian theropods, including the small, feathered deinonychosaurs, and Archaeopteryx, consistently and significantly cluster with fully terrestrial extant mammals and ground-based birds, such as ratites. Basal birds, more advanced than Archaeopteryx, cluster with extant perching ground-foraging birds. Evolutionary trends immediately prior to the origin of birds indicate skeletal adaptations opposite that expected for arboreal climbers. Results reject an arboreal capacity for the avian stem lineage, thus lending no support for the trees-down model. Support for a fully terrestrial ecology and origin of the avian flight stroke has broad implications for the origin of powered flight for this clade. A terrestrial origin for the avian flight stroke challenges the need for an intermediate gliding phase, presents the best resolved series of the evolution of vertebrate powered flight, and may differ fundamentally from the origin of bat and pterosaur flight, whose antecedents have been postulated to have been arboreal and gliding.