Losing power of flight no impact on penguins' brains

Tuesday, 01 March 2016

Proffitt J, Clarke J and Scofield R P. Novel insights into early neuroanatomical evolution in penguins from the oldest described penguin brain endocast. Journal of Anatomy. DOI: 10.1111/joa.12447.

Image credit: Waimanu manningeri, Chris Gaskin

Digital methodologies for rendering the gross morphology of the brain from X-ray computed tomography data have expanded our current understanding of the origin and evolution of avian neuroanatomy and provided new perspectives on the cognition and behavior of birds in deep time.

However, fossil skulls germane to extracting digital endocasts from early stem members of extant avian lineages remain exceptionally rare. Data from early-diverging species of major avian subclades provide key information on ancestral morphologies in Aves and shifts in gross neuroanatomical structure that have occurred within those groups.

Here we describe data on the gross morphology of the brain from a mid-to-late Paleocene penguin fossil from New Zealand. This most basal and geochronologically earliest-described endocast from the penguin clade indicates that described neuroanatomical features of early stem penguins, such as lower telencephalic lateral expansion, a relatively wider cerebellum, and lack of cerebellar folding, were present far earlier in penguin history than previously inferred.

Limited dorsal expansion of the wulst in the new fossil is a feature seen in outgroup waterbird taxa such as Gaviidae (Loons) and diving Procellariiformes (Shearwaters, Diving Petrels, and allies), indicating that loss of flight may not drastically affect neuroanatomy in diving taxa. Wulst enlargement in the penguin lineage is first seen in the late Eocene, at least 25 million years after loss of flight and cooption of the flight stroke for aquatic diving. Similar to the origin of avian flight, major shifts in gross brain morphology follow, but do not appear to evolve quickly after, acquisition of a novel locomotor mode. Enlargement of the wulst shows a complex pattern across waterbirds, and may be linked to sensory modifications related to prey choice and foraging strategy.

See the paper here.

See our media release here.