Flightless birds are not neuroanatomical analogs of non-avian dinosaurs.BMC Evol Biol. 2018 12 13; 18(1):190.BE
In comparative neurobiology, major transitions in behavior are thought to be associated with proportional size changes in brain regions. Bird-line theropod dinosaurs underwent a drastic locomotory shift from terrestrial to volant forms, accompanied by a suite of well-documented postcranial adaptations. To elucidate the potential impact of this locomotor shift on neuroanatomy, we first tested for a correlation between loss of flight in extant birds and whether the brain morphology of these birds resembles that of their flightless, non-avian dinosaurian ancestors. We constructed virtual endocasts of the braincase for 80 individuals of non-avian and avian theropods, including 25 flying and 19 flightless species of crown group birds. The endocasts were analyzed using a three-dimensional (3-D) geometric morphometric approach to assess changes in brain shape along the dinosaur-bird transition and secondary losses of flight in crown-group birds (Aves).
While non-avian dinosaurs and crown-group birds are clearly distinct in endocranial shape, volant and flightless birds overlap considerably in brain morphology. Phylogenetically informed analyses show that locomotory mode does not significantly account for neuroanatomical variation in crown-group birds. Linear discriminant analysis (LDA) also indicates poor predictive power of neuroanatomical shape for inferring locomotory mode. Given current sampling, Archaeopteryx, typically considered the oldest known bird, is inferred to be terrestrial based on its endocranial morphology.
The results demonstrate that loss of flight does not correlate with an appreciable amount of neuroanatomical changes across Aves, but rather is partially constrained due to phylogenetic inertia, evident from sister taxa having similarly shaped endocasts. Although the present study does not explicitly test whether endocranial changes along the dinosaur-bird transition are due to the acquisition of powered flight, the prominent relative expansion of the cerebrum, in areas associated with flight-related cognitive capacity, suggests that the acquisition of flight may have been an important initial driver of brain shape evolution in theropods.