Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds

A special issue of Diversity (ISSN 1424-2818). This special issue belongs to the section "Phylogeny and Evolution".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (31 December 2021) | Viewed by 67405

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CNRS (UMR 8538), Laboratoire de Géologie de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure, 24 Rue Lhomond, 75231 Paris, CEDEX 05, France
Interests: vertebrate palaeontology
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School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Life Sciences Building, 24 Tyndall Avenue, Bristol BS8 1TQ, UK
Interests: paleobiology and the paleoecology of the large terrestrial fossil birds, using a mutlidiciplinary approch

Special Issue Information

Although flight is often considered as one of the most salient characteristics of birds, in the course of their evolution, various avian lineages have lost the ability to fly. This has happened at different periods of the geological past, and under very varied circumstances. In some cases, loss of flight is associated with strictly terrestrial habits in usually large forms, as in living and fossil “ratites” and in various extinct groups of giant ground birds (gastornithids, dromornithids, phorusrhacids, etc.). The case of birds deeply adapted to foraging in an aquatic environment, such as penguins, is a completely different instance of flightlessness. Loss of flight has often taken place in insular environments, where the lack of predators is supposed to have played a crucial part—the dodo is a case in point. The aim of this Special Issue is to explore the various aspects of this multi-faceted evolutionary process. Reviews and articles about the anatomy, evolution, palaeoecology, palaeobiology, and fossil record of flightless birds are invited.

Dr. Eric Buffetaut
Dr. Delphine Angst
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Keywords

  • birds
  • flightlessness
  • evolution
  • anatomy
  • palaeoecology
  • palaeobiology
  • fossil record

Published Papers (10 papers)

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Editorial

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3 pages, 166 KiB  
Editorial
An Introduction to Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds
by Eric Buffetaut and Delphine Angst
Diversity 2022, 14(4), 296; https://doi.org/10.3390/d14040296 - 15 Apr 2022
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2284
Abstract
Although flight is often considered as one of the most salient characteristics of birds, in the course of their evolution various avian lineages have lost the ability to fly [...] Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds)

Research

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30 pages, 5214 KiB  
Article
New Comparative Data on the Long Bone Microstructure of Large Extant and Extinct Flightless Birds
by Aurore Canoville, Anusuya Chinsamy and Delphine Angst
Diversity 2022, 14(4), 298; https://doi.org/10.3390/d14040298 - 15 Apr 2022
Cited by 12 | Viewed by 4610
Abstract
Here, we investigate whether bone microanatomy can be used to infer the locomotion mode (cursorial vs. graviportal) of large terrestrial birds. We also reexamine, or describe for the first time, the bone histology of several large extant and extinct flightless birds to [...] Read more.
Here, we investigate whether bone microanatomy can be used to infer the locomotion mode (cursorial vs. graviportal) of large terrestrial birds. We also reexamine, or describe for the first time, the bone histology of several large extant and extinct flightless birds to (i) document the histovariability between skeletal elements of the hindlimb; (ii) improve our knowledge of the histological diversity of large flightless birds; (iii) and reassess previous hypotheses pertaining to the growth strategies of modern palaeognaths. Our results show that large extinct terrestrial birds, inferred as graviportal based on hindlimb proportions, also have thicker diaphyseal cortices and/or more bony trabeculae in the medullary region than cursorial birds. We also report for the first time the occurrence of growth marks (not associated with an outer circumferential layer-OCL) in the cortices of several extant ratites. These observations support earlier hypotheses that flexible growth patterns can be present in birds when selection pressures for rapid growth within a single year are absent. We also document the occurrence of an OCL in several skeletally mature ratites. Here, the high incidence of pathologies among the modern species is attributed to the fact that these individuals were probably long-lived zoo specimens. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds)
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24 pages, 7614 KiB  
Article
Contrasting Patterns of Sensory Adaptation in Living and Extinct Flightless Birds
by Peter Johnston and Kieren J. Mitchell
Diversity 2021, 13(11), 538; https://doi.org/10.3390/d13110538 - 26 Oct 2021
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 4567
Abstract
Avian cranial anatomy is constrained by the competing (or complementary) requirements and costs of various facial, muscular, sensory, and central neural structures. However, these constraints may operate differently in flighted versus flightless birds. We investigated cranial sense organ morphology in four lineages of [...] Read more.
Avian cranial anatomy is constrained by the competing (or complementary) requirements and costs of various facial, muscular, sensory, and central neural structures. However, these constraints may operate differently in flighted versus flightless birds. We investigated cranial sense organ morphology in four lineages of flightless birds: kiwi (Apteryx), the Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), and the extinct moa (Dinornithiformes) from New Zealand; and the extinct elephant birds from Madagascar (Aepyornithidae). Scleral ring and eye measurements suggest that the Upland Moa (Megalapteryx didinus) was diurnal, while measurements for the Kakapo are consistent with nocturnality. Kiwi are olfactory specialists, though here we postulate that retronasal olfaction is the dominant olfactory route in this lineage. We suggest that the Upland Moa and aepyornithids were also olfactory specialists; the former additionally displaying prominent bill tip sensory organs implicated in mechanoreception. Finally, the relative size of the endosseous cochlear duct revealed that the Upland Moa had a well-developed hearing sensitivity range, while the sensitivity of the kiwi, Kakapo, and aepyornithids was diminished. Together, our results reveal contrasting sensory strategies among extant and extinct flightless birds. More detailed characterisation of sensory capacities and cranial anatomy in extant birds may refine our ability to make accurate inferences about the sensory capacities of fossil taxa. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds)
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18 pages, 40670 KiB  
Article
Histovariability and Palaeobiological Implications of the Bone Histology of the Dromornithid, Genyornis newtoni
by Anusuya Chinsamy and Trevor H. Worthy
Diversity 2021, 13(5), 219; https://doi.org/10.3390/d13050219 - 20 May 2021
Cited by 6 | Viewed by 4647
Abstract
The bone microstructure of extinct animals provides a host of information about their biology. Although the giant flightless dromornithid, Genyornis newtoni, is reasonably well known from the Pleistocene of Australia (until its extinction about 50–40 Ka), aside from various aspects of its skeletal [...] Read more.
The bone microstructure of extinct animals provides a host of information about their biology. Although the giant flightless dromornithid, Genyornis newtoni, is reasonably well known from the Pleistocene of Australia (until its extinction about 50–40 Ka), aside from various aspects of its skeletal anatomy and taxonomy, not much is known about its biology. The current study investigated the histology of fifteen long bones of Genyornis (tibiotarsi, tarsometatarsi and femora) to deduce information about its growth dynamics and life history. Thin sections of the bones were prepared using standard methods, and the histology of the bones was studied under normal and polarised light microscopy. Our histological analyses showed that Genyornis took more than a single year to reach sexual maturity, and that it continued to deposit bone within the OCL for several years thereafter until skeletal maturity was attained. Thus, sexual maturity and skeletal maturity were asynchronous, with the former preceding the latter. Our results further indicated that Genyornis responded to prevailing environmental conditions, which suggests that it retained a plesiomorphic, flexible growth strategy. Additionally, our analyses of the three long bones showed that the tibiotarsus preserved the best record of growth for Genyornis. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds)
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38 pages, 5245 KiB  
Article
Endocranial Anatomy of the Giant Extinct Australian Mihirung Birds (Aves, Dromornithidae)
by Warren D. Handley and Trevor H. Worthy
Diversity 2021, 13(3), 124; https://doi.org/10.3390/d13030124 - 15 Mar 2021
Cited by 13 | Viewed by 11718
Abstract
Dromornithids are an extinct group of large flightless birds from the Cenozoic of Australia. Their record extends from the Eocene to the late Pleistocene. Four genera and eight species are currently recognised, with diversity highest in the Miocene. Dromornithids were once considered ratites, [...] Read more.
Dromornithids are an extinct group of large flightless birds from the Cenozoic of Australia. Their record extends from the Eocene to the late Pleistocene. Four genera and eight species are currently recognised, with diversity highest in the Miocene. Dromornithids were once considered ratites, but since the discovery of cranial elements, phylogenetic analyses have placed them near the base of the anseriforms or, most recently, resolved them as stem galliforms. In this study, we use morphometric methods to comprehensively describe dromornithid endocranial morphology for the first time, comparing Ilbandornis woodburnei and three species of Dromornis to one another and to four species of extant basal galloanseres. We reveal that major endocranial reconfiguration was associated with cranial foreshortening in a temporal series along the Dromornis lineage. Five key differences are evident between the brain morphology of Ilbandornis and Dromornis, relating to the medial wulst, the ventral eminence of the caudoventral telencephalon, and morphology of the metencephalon (cerebellum + pons). Additionally, dromornithid brains display distinctive dorsal (rostral position of the wulst), and ventral morphology (form of the maxillomandibular [V2+V3], glossopharyngeal [IX], and vagus [X] cranial nerves), supporting hypotheses that dromornithids are more closely related to basal galliforms than anseriforms. Functional interpretations suggest that dromornithids were specialised herbivores that likely possessed well-developed stereoscopic depth perception, were diurnal and targeted a soft browse trophic niche. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds)
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20 pages, 6051 KiB  
Article
Reappraisal on the Phylogenetic Relationships of the Enigmatic Flightless Bird (Brontornis burmeisteri) Moreno and Mercerat, 1891
by Federico L. Agnolin
Diversity 2021, 13(2), 90; https://doi.org/10.3390/d13020090 - 20 Feb 2021
Cited by 4 | Viewed by 5854
Abstract
The fossil record of birds in South America is still very patchy. One of the most remarkable birds found in Miocene deposits from Patagonia is Brontornis burmeisteri Moreno and Mercerat, 1891. This giant flightless bird is known by multiple incomplete specimens that represent [...] Read more.
The fossil record of birds in South America is still very patchy. One of the most remarkable birds found in Miocene deposits from Patagonia is Brontornis burmeisteri Moreno and Mercerat, 1891. This giant flightless bird is known by multiple incomplete specimens that represent a few portions of the skeleton, mainly hindlimb bones. Since the XIX century, Brontornis was considered as belonging to or closely related to phorusrhacoid birds. In contrast to previous work, by the end of 2000 decade it was proposed that Brontornis belongs to Galloanserae. This proposal was recently contested based on a large dataset including both phorusrhacoids and galloanserine birds, that concluded Brontornis was nested among cariamiform birds, and probably belonged to phorusrhacoids. The aim of the present contribution is to re-evaluate the phylogenetic affinities of Brontornis. Based on modified previous datasets, it is concluded that Brontornis does belong to Galloanserae, and that it represents a member of a largely unknown radiation of giant graviportal birds from South America. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds)
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Review

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28 pages, 5102 KiB  
Review
The Hesperornithiformes: A Review of the Diversity, Distribution, and Ecology of the Earliest Diving Birds
by Alyssa Bell and Luis M. Chiappe
Diversity 2022, 14(4), 267; https://doi.org/10.3390/d14040267 - 1 Apr 2022
Cited by 11 | Viewed by 7023
Abstract
The Hesperornithiformes (sometimes referred to as Hesperornithes) are the first known birds to have adapted to a fully aquatic lifestyle, appearing in the fossil record as flightless, foot-propelled divers in the early Late Cretaceous. Their known fossil record—broadly distributed across the Northern Hemisphere—shows [...] Read more.
The Hesperornithiformes (sometimes referred to as Hesperornithes) are the first known birds to have adapted to a fully aquatic lifestyle, appearing in the fossil record as flightless, foot-propelled divers in the early Late Cretaceous. Their known fossil record—broadly distributed across the Northern Hemisphere—shows a relatively rapid diversification into a wide range of body sizes and degrees of adaptation to the water, from the small Enaliornis and Pasquiaornis with lesser degrees of diving specialization to the large Hesperornis with extreme morphological specializations. Paleontologists have been studying these birds for over 150 years, dating back to the “Bone Wars” between Marsh and Cope, and as such have a long history of naming, and renaming, taxa. More recent work has focused to varying degrees on the evolutionary relationships, functional morphology, and histology of the group, but there are many opportunities remaining for better understanding these birds. Broad-scale taxonomic evaluations of the more than 20 known species, additional histological work, and the incorporation of digital visualization tools such as computed tomography scans can all add significantly to our understanding of these birds. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds)
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15 pages, 2322 KiB  
Review
The Enigmatic Avian Oogenus Psammornis: A Review of Stratigraphic Evidence
by Eric Buffetaut
Diversity 2022, 14(2), 123; https://doi.org/10.3390/d14020123 - 8 Feb 2022
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 3037
Abstract
Psammornis rothschildi is an avian taxon established by Andrews in 1911 on the basis of eggshell fragments surface-collected near the city of Touggourt, in the north-eastern part of the Algerian Sahara. Since the initial discovery, a number of Psammornis specimens have been [...] Read more.
Psammornis rothschildi is an avian taxon established by Andrews in 1911 on the basis of eggshell fragments surface-collected near the city of Touggourt, in the north-eastern part of the Algerian Sahara. Since the initial discovery, a number of Psammornis specimens have been reported from various localities in North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania) and the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Iran). Most of the finds lack a stratigraphic context, which has resulted in considerable confusion about the geological age of Psammornis, with attributions ranging from the Eocene to the Holocene. A review of the available evidence shows that only two groups of localities provide reasonably reliable stratigraphic evidence: the Segui Formation of SW Tunisia, apparently of latest Miocene age, and the Aguerguerian (Middle Pleistocene) of NW Mauritania. This suggests a fairly long time range for Psammornis. Psammornis eggs are, in all likelihood, those of giant ostriches, although the lack of associated skeletal material makes it difficult to interpret the eggshell fragments in evolutionary terms. However, the oological record suggests that giant ostriches have been present in Africa since the late Miocene, which leads to the reconsideration of some hypotheses about the palaeobiogeographical history of the Struthionidae. The lack of Psammornis eggs transformed by humans suggests that this giant ostrich did not survive until Epipalaeolthic or Neolithic times. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds)
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69 pages, 5932 KiB  
Review
The Evolution and Fossil Record of Palaeognathous Birds (Neornithes: Palaeognathae)
by Klara Widrig and Daniel J. Field
Diversity 2022, 14(2), 105; https://doi.org/10.3390/d14020105 - 1 Feb 2022
Cited by 12 | Viewed by 13870
Abstract
The extant diversity of the avian clade Palaeognathae is composed of the iconic flightless ratites (ostriches, rheas, kiwi, emus, and cassowaries), and the volant tinamous of Central and South America. Palaeognaths were once considered a classic illustration of diversification driven by Gondwanan vicariance, [...] Read more.
The extant diversity of the avian clade Palaeognathae is composed of the iconic flightless ratites (ostriches, rheas, kiwi, emus, and cassowaries), and the volant tinamous of Central and South America. Palaeognaths were once considered a classic illustration of diversification driven by Gondwanan vicariance, but this paradigm has been rejected in light of molecular phylogenetic and divergence time results from the last two decades that indicate that palaeognaths underwent multiple relatively recent transitions to flightlessness and large body size, reinvigorating research into their evolutionary origins and historical biogeography. This revised perspective on palaeognath macroevolution has highlighted lingering gaps in our understanding of how, when, and where extant palaeognath diversity arose. Towards resolving those questions, we aim to comprehensively review the known fossil record of palaeognath skeletal remains, and to summarize the current state of knowledge of their evolutionary history. Total clade palaeognaths appear to be one of a small handful of crown bird lineages that crossed the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, but gaps in their Paleogene fossil record and a lack of Cretaceous fossils preclude a detailed understanding of their multiple transitions to flightlessness and large body size, and recognizable members of extant subclades generally do not appear until the Neogene. Despite these knowledge gaps, we combine what is known from the fossil record of palaeognaths with plausible divergence time estimates, suggesting a relatively rapid pace of diversification and phenotypic evolution in the early Cenozoic. In line with some recent authors, we surmise that the most recent common ancestor of palaeognaths was likely a relatively small-bodied, ground-feeding bird, features that may have facilitated total-clade palaeognath survivorship through the K-Pg mass extinction, and which may bear on the ecological habits of the ancestral crown bird. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds)
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12 pages, 3121 KiB  
Review
A Giant Ostrich from the Lower Pleistocene Nihewan Formation of North China, with a Review of the Fossil Ostriches of China
by Eric Buffetaut and Delphine Angst
Diversity 2021, 13(2), 47; https://doi.org/10.3390/d13020047 - 26 Jan 2021
Cited by 7 | Viewed by 7077
Abstract
A large incomplete ostrich femur from the Lower Pleistocene of North China, kept at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris), is described. It was found by Father Emile Licent in 1925 in the Nihewan Formation (dated at about 1.8 Ma) of Hebei Province. [...] Read more.
A large incomplete ostrich femur from the Lower Pleistocene of North China, kept at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris), is described. It was found by Father Emile Licent in 1925 in the Nihewan Formation (dated at about 1.8 Ma) of Hebei Province. On the basis of the minimum circumference of the shaft, a mass of 300 kg, twice that of a modern ostrich, was obtained. The bone is remarkably robust, more so than the femur of the more recent, Late Pleistocene, Struthio anderssoni from China, and resembles in that regard Pachystruthio Kretzoi, 1954, a genus known from the Lower Pleistocene of Hungary, Georgia and the Crimea, to which the Nihewan specimen is referred, as Pachystruthio indet. This find testifies to the wide geographical distribution of very massive ostriches in the Early Pleistocene of Eurasia. The giant ostrich from Nihewan was contemporaneous with the early hominins who inhabited that region in the Early Pleistocene. Full article
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Evolution and Palaeobiology of Flightless Birds)
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