Nocturnal giants: evolution of the sensory ecology in elephant birds and other palaeognaths inferred from digital brain reconstructions.
ABSTRACT: The recently extinct Malagasy elephant birds (Palaeognathae, Aepyornithiformes) included the largest birds that ever lived. Elephant bird neuroanatomy is understudied but can shed light on the lifestyle of these enigmatic birds. Palaeoneurological studies can provide clues to the ecologies and behaviours of extinct birds because avian brain shape is correlated with neurological function. We digitally reconstruct endocasts of two elephant bird species, Aepyornis maximus and A. hildebrandti, and compare them with representatives of all major extant and recently extinct palaeognath lineages. Among palaeognaths, we find large olfactory bulbs in taxa generally occupying forested environments where visual cues used in foraging are likely to be limited. We detected variation in olfactory bulb size among elephant bird species, possibly indicating interspecific variation in habitat. Elephant birds exhibited extremely reduced optic lobes, a condition also observed in the nocturnal kiwi. Kiwi, the sister taxon of elephant birds, have effectively replaced their visual systems with hyperdeveloped olfactory, somatosensory and auditory systems useful for foraging. We interpret these results as evidence for nocturnality among elephant birds. Vision was likely deemphasized in the ancestor of elephant birds and kiwi. These results show a previously unreported trend towards decreased visual capacity apparently exclusive to flightless, nocturnal taxa endemic to predator-depauperate islands.
Project description:Kiwi, comprising five species from the genus Apteryx, are endangered, ground-dwelling bird species endemic to New Zealand. They are the smallest and only nocturnal representatives of the ratites. The timing of kiwi adaptation to a nocturnal niche and the genomic innovations, which shaped sensory systems and morphology to allow this adaptation, are not yet fully understood.We sequenced and assembled the brown kiwi genome to 150-fold coverage and annotated the genome using kiwi transcript data and non-redundant protein information from multiple bird species. We identified evolutionary sequence changes that underlie adaptation to nocturnality and estimated the onset time of these adaptations. Several opsin genes involved in color vision are inactivated in the kiwi. We date this inactivation to the Oligocene epoch, likely after the arrival of the ancestor of modern kiwi in New Zealand. Genome comparisons between kiwi and representatives of ratites, Galloanserae, and Neoaves, including nocturnal and song birds, show diversification of kiwi's odorant receptors repertoire, which may reflect an increased reliance on olfaction rather than sight during foraging. Further, there is an enrichment of genes influencing mitochondrial function and energy expenditure among genes that are rapidly evolving specifically on the kiwi branch, which may also be linked to its nocturnal lifestyle.The genomic changes in kiwi vision and olfaction are consistent with changes that are hypothesized to occur during adaptation to nocturnal lifestyle in mammals. The kiwi genome provides a valuable genomic resource for future genome-wide comparative analyses to other extinct and extant diurnal ratites.
Project description:BACKGROUND:In vertebrates, the molecular basis of the sense of smell is encoded by members of a large gene family, namely olfactory receptor (OR) genes. Both the total number of OR genes and the proportion of intact OR genes in a genome may indicate the importance of the sense of smell for an animal. There is behavioral, physiological, and anatomical evidence that some bird species, in particular nocturnal birds, have a well developed sense of smell. Therefore, we hypothesized that nocturnal birds with good olfactory abilities have evolved (i) more OR genes and (ii) more intact OR genes than closely related and presumably less 'olfaction-dependent' day-active avian taxa. RESULTS:We used both non-radioactive Southern hybridization and PCR with degenerate primers to investigate whether two nocturnal bird species that are known to rely on olfactory cues, the brown kiwi (Apteryx australis) and the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), have evolved a larger OR gene repertoire than their day-active, closest living relatives (for kiwi the emu Dromaius novaehollandiae, rhea Rhea americana, and ostrich Struthio camelus and for kakapo the kaka Nestor meridionalis and kea Nestor notabilis). We show that the nocturnal birds did not have a significantly higher proportion of intact OR genes. However, the estimated total number of OR genes was larger in the two nocturnal birds than in their relatives. CONCLUSION:Our results suggest that ecological niche adaptations such as daily activity patterns may have shaped avian OR gene repertoires.
Project description:Foraging strategies of birds can influence trophic plant-insect networks with impacts on primary plant production. Recent experiments show that some forest insectivorous birds can use herbivore-induced plant volatiles (HIPVs) to locate herbivore-infested trees, but it is unclear how birds combine or prioritize visual and olfactory information when making foraging decisions. Here, we investigated attraction of ground-foraging birds to HIPVs and visible prey in short vegetation on farmland in a series of foraging choice experiments. Birds showed an initial preference for HIPVs when visual information was the same for all choice options (i.e., one experimental setup had all options with visible prey, another setup with hidden prey). However, if the alternatives within an experimental setup included visible prey (without HIPV) in competition with HIPV-only, then birds preferred the visual option over HIPVs. Our results show that olfactory cues can play an important role in birds' foraging choices when visual information contains little variation; however, visual cues are preferred when variation is present. This suggests certain aspects of bird foraging decisions in agricultural habitats are mediated by olfactory interaction mechanisms between birds and plants. We also found that birds from variety of dietary food guilds were attracted to HIPVs; hence, the ability of birds to use plant cues is probably more general than previously thought, and may influence the biological pest control potential of birds on farmland.
Project description:Among vertebrates, the sense of smell is mediated by olfactory receptors (ORs) expressed in sensory neurons within the olfactory epithelium. Comparative genomic studies suggest that the olfactory acuity of mammalian species correlates positively with both the total number and the proportion of functional OR genes encoded in their genomes. In contrast to mammals, avian olfaction is poorly understood, with birds widely regarded as relying primarily on visual and auditory inputs. Here, we show that in nine bird species from seven orders (blue tit, Cyanistes caeruleus; black coucal, Centropus grillii; brown kiwi, Apteryx australis; canary, Serinus canaria; galah, Eolophus roseicapillus; red jungle fowl, Gallus gallus; kakapo, Strigops habroptilus; mallard, Anas platyrhynchos; snow petrel, Pagodroma nivea), the majority of amplified OR sequences are predicted to be from potentially functional genes. This finding is somewhat surprising as one previous report suggested that the majority of OR genes in an avian (red jungle fowl) genomic sequence are non-functional pseudogenes. We also show that it is not the estimated proportion of potentially functional OR genes, but rather the estimated total number of OR genes that correlates positively with relative olfactory bulb size, an anatomical correlate of olfactory capability. We further demonstrate that all the nine bird genomes examined encode OR genes belonging to a large gene clade, termed gamma-c, the expansion of which appears to be a shared characteristic of class Aves. In summary, our findings suggest that olfaction in birds may be a more important sense than generally believed.
Project description:The olfactory bulb (OB) ratio is the size of the OB relative to the cerebral hemisphere, and is used to estimate the proportion of the forebrain devoted to smell. In birds, OB ratio correlates with the number of olfactory receptor (OR) genes and therefore has been used as a proxy for olfactory acuity. By coupling OB ratios with known OR gene repertoires in birds, we infer minimum repertoire sizes for extinct taxa, including non-avian dinosaurs, using phylogenetic modelling, ancestral state reconstruction and comparative genomics. We highlight a shift in the scaling of OB ratio to body size along the lineage leading to modern birds, demonstrating variable OR repertoires present in different dinosaur and crown-bird lineages, with varying factors potentially influencing sensory evolution in theropods. We investigate the ancestral sensory space available to extinct taxa, highlighting potential adaptations to ecological niches. Through combining morphological and genomic data, we show that, while genetic information for extinct taxa is forever lost, it is potentially feasible to investigate evolutionary trajectories in extinct genomes.
Project description:Three families of probe-foraging birds, Scolopacidae (sandpipers and snipes), Apterygidae (kiwi), and Threskiornithidae (ibises, including spoonbills) have independently evolved long, narrow bills containing clusters of vibration-sensitive mechanoreceptors (Herbst corpuscles) within pits in the bill-tip. These 'bill-tip organs' allow birds to detect buried or submerged prey via substrate-borne vibrations and/or interstitial pressure gradients. Shorebirds, kiwi and ibises are only distantly related, with the phylogenetic divide between kiwi and the other two taxa being particularly deep. We compared the bill-tip structure and associated somatosensory regions in the brains of kiwi and shorebirds to understand the degree of convergence of these systems between the two taxa. For comparison, we also included data from other taxa including waterfowl (Anatidae) and parrots (Psittaculidae and Cacatuidae), non-apterygid ratites, and other probe-foraging and non probe-foraging birds including non-scolopacid shorebirds (Charadriidae, Haematopodidae, Recurvirostridae and Sternidae). We show that the bill-tip organ structure was broadly similar between the Apterygidae and Scolopacidae, however some inter-specific variation was found in the number, shape and orientation of sensory pits between the two groups. Kiwi, scolopacid shorebirds, waterfowl and parrots all shared hypertrophy or near-hypertrophy of the principal sensory trigeminal nucleus. Hypertrophy of the nucleus basorostralis, however, occurred only in waterfowl, kiwi, three of the scolopacid species examined and a species of oystercatcher (Charadriiformes: Haematopodidae). Hypertrophy of the principal sensory trigeminal nucleus in kiwi, Scolopacidae, and other tactile specialists appears to have co-evolved alongside bill-tip specializations, whereas hypertrophy of nucleus basorostralis may be influenced to a greater extent by other sensory inputs. We suggest that similarities between kiwi and scolopacid bill-tip organs and associated somatosensory brain regions are likely a result of similar ecological selective pressures, with inter-specific variations reflecting finer-scale niche differentiation.
Project description:BACKGROUND:Many living birds exhibit some nocturnal activity, but the genetic basis and evolutionary origins of their nocturnality remain unknown. RESULTS:Here, we used a molecular phyloecological approach to analyze the adaptive evolution of 33 phototransduction genes in diverse bird lineages. Our results suggest that functional enhancement of two night-vision genes, namely, GRK1 and SLC24A1, underlies the nocturnal adaption of living birds. Further analyses showed that the diel activity patterns of birds have remained relatively unchanged since their common ancestor, suggesting that the widespread nocturnal activity of many living birds may largely stem from their common ancestor rather than independent evolution. Despite this evolutionary conservation of diel activity patterns in birds, photoresponse recovery genes were found to be frequently subjected to positive selection in diverse bird lineages, suggesting that birds generally have evolved an increased capacity for motion detection. Moreover, we detected positive selection on both dim-light vision genes and bright-light vision genes in the class Aves, suggesting divergent evolution of the vision of birds from that of reptiles and that different bird lineages have evolved certain visual adaptions to their specific light conditions. CONCLUSIONS:This study suggests that the widespread nocturnality of extant birds has a deep evolutionary origin tracing back to their common ancestor.
Project description:Meso- and submesoscales (fronts, eddies, filaments) in surface ocean flow have a crucial influence on marine ecosystems. Their dynamics partly control the foraging behavior and the displacement of marine top predators (tuna, birds, turtles, and cetaceans). In this work we focus on the role of submesoscale structures in the Mozambique Channel in the distribution of a marine predator, the Great Frigatebird. Using a newly developed dynamic concept, the finite-size Lyapunov exponent (FSLE), we identified Lagrangian coherent structures (LCSs) present in the surface flow in the channel over a 2-month observation period (August and September 2003). By comparing seabird satellite positions with LCS locations, we demonstrate that frigatebirds track precisely these structures in the Mozambique Channel, providing the first evidence that a top predator is able to track these FSLE ridges to locate food patches. After comparing bird positions during long and short trips and different parts of these trips, we propose several hypotheses to understand how frigatebirds can follow these LCSs. The birds might use visual and/or olfactory cues and/or atmospheric current changes over the structures to move along these biologic corridors. The birds being often associated with tuna schools around foraging areas, a thorough comprehension of their foraging behavior and movement during the breeding season is crucial not only to seabird ecology but also to an appropriate ecosystemic approach to fisheries in the channel.
Project description:Bird collisions with buildings are the second largest anthropogenic source of direct mortality for birds (365-988 million birds killed annually in the United States). Recent research suggests that this mortality occurs disproportionately across species. However, previous work had relied on regional and annual measures of relative species abundance. Our research identifies which species experience higher or lower collision rates than expected from local abundances using two sets of citizen science data: Minnesota Project BirdSafe and the Mississippi River Twin Cities Important Bird Area Landbird Monitoring Program. Our analysis used a measure of relative species abundance that spatially overlaps the area monitored for building collisions and was measured weekly, allowing for a temporally and spatially more specific analysis than most previous analyses. Abundance and collision data were used to model phylogenetic and behavioral traits associated with increased collision risk. Behavioral traits included diurnal/nocturnal migration timing, length of migration, and foraging strategies. Our analysis shows that birds that predominately migrate during the day have a decreased risk of building collisions despite peak collision numbers occurring during early morning; this result suggests that more nuanced behavioral or physiological differences between diurnal and nocturnal migrants could contribute to bird-building collision risk. Additionally, for many species, local abundance is the predominant determining factor for collision risk. However, for ~20% of species studied, the family, genus, and/or species of a bird may affect the collision risk.
Project description:Studies of kin recognition in birds have largely focused on parent-offspring recognition using auditory or visual discrimination. Recent studies indicate that birds use odors during social and familial interactions and possibly for mate choice, suggesting olfactory cues may mediate kin recognition as well. Here, we show that Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti), a natally philopatric species with lifetime monogamy, discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar non-kin odors (using prior association) and between unfamiliar kin and non-kin odors (using phenotype matching). Penguins preferred familiar non-kin odors, which may be associated with the recognition of nest mates and colony mates and with locating burrows at night after foraging. In tests of kin recognition, penguins preferred unfamiliar non-kin odors. Penguins may have perceived non-kin odors as novel because they did not match the birds' recognition templates. Phenotype matching is likely the primary mechanism for kin recognition within the colony to avoid inbreeding. To our knowledge this is the first study to provide evidence of odor-based kin discrimination in a bird.