Birds’ brains left other dinosaurs behind

Birds' brains left other dinosaurs behind

A photograph of the new Ichthyornis fossil (top) and a transparent 3D model (bottom) of the skull and brain (bottom, in pink). Credit: Christopher Torres / University of Texas at Austin

Today, being “brainless” means forgetting where you left your keys or wallet. But 66 million years ago, that may have made the difference between life and death and may help explain why birds are the only dinosaurs left on Earth.

Research on a newly discovered bird fossil conducted by the University of Texas at Austin revealed that a unique brain shape could be the reason that the ancestors of living birds survived the mass extinction that cost life to all other known dinosaurs.

“Living birds have more complex brains than any known animal except mammals,” said lead researcher Christopher Torres, who conducted the research while earning a doctorate. from UT’s College of Natural Sciences and is now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the National Science Foundation at Ohio University and a Research Associate at UT Jackson School of Geosciences. “This new fossil finally allows us to test the idea that these brains played a major role in their survival.”

The fossil is around 70 million years old and has an almost complete skull, a rare event in the fossil record that has allowed scientists to compare the ancient bird to birds living today.

The results were published on July 30 in the journal Scientists progress.

The fossil is a new specimen of a bird named Ichthyornis, who became extinct along with other non-avian dinosaurs and lived in what is now Kansas during the late Cretaceous Period. Ichthyornis has a mix of avian and non-avian characteristics similar to a dinosaur, including jaws full of teeth but with a beak. The intact skull allowed Torres and his collaborators to take a closer look at the brain.

Birds' brains left other dinosaurs behind

The ancestors of living birds had a very different brain shape than other dinosaurs (including other early birds). This suggests that the brain differences may have affected survival during the mass extinction that wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs. Credit: Christopher Torres / University of Texas at Austin

Bird skulls wrap tightly around their brains. With CT imaging data, the researchers used the skull of Ichthyornis like a mold to create a 3D replica of his brain called an endocast. They compared this endocast with those created for living birds and more distant dinosaur relatives.

The researchers found that the brain of Ichthyornis had more in common with non-avian dinosaurs than living birds. In particular, the cerebral hemispheres, where higher cognitive functions such as speech, thought, and emotions occur in humans, are much larger in living birds than in birds. Ichthyornis. This model suggests that these functions may be linked to survival to mass extinction.

“If a feature of the brain affected survival, we would expect it to be present in survivors but absent in victims, such as Ichthyornis“Torres said.” That’s exactly what we see here. “

The search for the skulls of primitive birds and closely related dinosaurs has been a challenge for paleontologists for centuries. Bird skeletons are notoriously fragile and rarely survive intact in the three-dimensional fossil record. Well-preserved skulls are particularly rare, but that’s exactly what scientists need to understand what their brains looked like in life.

Ichthyornis is the key to unraveling this mystery, “said Julia Clarke, professor at UT Jackson School of Geosciences and co-author of the study.” This fossil helps us get much closer to answering some lingering questions about living birds and their survival among dinosaurs. ”

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More information:
Christopher R. Torres et al, Evolution of neurocranial and body mass in birds through the late Cretaceous mass extinction: the shape of the avian brain left other dinosaurs behind, Scientists progress (2021). DOI: 10.1126 / sciadv.abg7099

Provided by the University of Texas at Austin

Quote: Bird Brains Left Other Dinosaurs Behind (2021, July 30) retrieved July 31, 2021 from

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