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Concept: Flightless bird


One of the notable features of penguin evolution is the occurrence of very large species in the early Cenozoic, whose body size greatly exceeded that of the largest extant penguins. Here we describe a new giant species from the late Paleocene of New Zealand that documents the very early evolution of large body size in penguins. Kumimanu biceae, n. gen. et sp. is larger than all other fossil penguins that have substantial skeletal portions preserved. Several plesiomorphic features place the new species outside a clade including all post-Paleocene giant penguins. It is phylogenetically separated from giant Eocene and Oligocene penguin species by various smaller taxa, which indicates multiple origins of giant size in penguin evolution. That a penguin rivaling the largest previously known species existed in the Paleocene suggests that gigantism in penguins arose shortly after these birds became flightless divers. Our study therefore strengthens previous suggestions that the absence of very large penguins today is likely due to the Oligo-Miocene radiation of marine mammals.

Concepts: Evolution, Bird, Mammal, Phylogenetics, Penguin, Dinosaur, Penguins, Flightless bird


The dodo, Raphus cucullatus, a flightless pigeon endemic to Mauritius, became extinct during the 17(th) century due to anthropogenic activities. Although it was contemporaneous with humans for almost a century, little was recorded about its ecology. Here we present new aspects of the life history of the dodo based on our analysis of its bone histology. We propose that the dodo bred around August and that the rapid growth of the chicks enabled them to reach a robust size before the austral summer or cyclone season. Histological evidence of molting suggests that after summer had passed, molt began in the adults that had just bred; the timing of molt derived from bone histology is also corroborated by historical descriptions of the dodo by mariners. This research represents the only bone histology analysis of the dodo and provides an unprecedented insight into the life history of this iconic bird.

Concepts: Bird, Columbidae, Flightless bird, Mauritius, Columbiformes, Dodo, Raphinae, Rodrigues Solitaire


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.

Concepts: Genetics, Species, Bird, New Zealand, Kiwi, Ostrich, Moa, Flightless bird


Flightless birds belonging to phylogenetically distant clades share several morphological features in the pectoral and pelvic apparatus. There are indications that skull morphology is also influenced by flightlessness. In this study we used a large number of flightless species to test whether flightlessness in modern birds does indeed affect cranial morphology. Discriminant analyses and variation partitioning show evidence for a relationship between skull morphology and the flightless condition in birds. A possible explanation for the change in cranial morphology can be linked to the reduced selective force for light-weight skulls in flightless birds. This makes an increase in muscle mass, and therefore an enlargement of muscle insertion areas on the skull, possible. We also compared the ontogenetic trajectory of Gallus with the adult morphology of a sample of flightless species to see whether the apomorphic features characterizing the skull of flightless birds share the same developmental basis, which would indicate convergent evolution by parallelism. Skull morphology (expressed as principal component scores) of palaeognathous flightless birds (ratites) is dissimilar (higher scores) to juvenile stages of the chicken and therefore seem peramorphic (overdeveloped). Principal component scores of adult neognathous flightless birds fall within the range of chicken development, so no clear conclusions about the ontogenetic trajectories leading to their sturdier skull morphology could be drawn.

Concepts: Bird, Skull, Force, Trajectory, Kiwi, Emu, Ostrich, Flightless bird


The ratites are a distinctive clade of flightless birds, typified by the emu and ostrich that have acquired a range of unique anatomical characteristics since diverging from basal Aves at least 100 million years ago. The emu possesses a vestigial wing with a single digit and greatly reduced forelimb musculature. However, the embryological basis of wing reduction and other anatomical changes associated with loss of flight are unclear. Here we report a previously unknown co-option of the cardiac transcription factor Nkx2.5 to the forelimb in the emu embryo, but not in ostrich, or chicken and zebra finch, which have fully developed wings. Nkx2.5 is expressed in emu limb bud mesenchyme and maturing wing muscle, and mis-expression of Nkx2.5 throughout the limb bud in chick results in wing reductions. We propose that Nkx2.5 functions to inhibit early limb bud expansion and later muscle growth during development of the vestigial emu wing.The transcription factor Nkx2.5 is essential for heart development. Here, the authors identify a previously unknown expression domain for Nkx2.5 in the emu wing and explore its role in diminished wing bud development in the flightless emu, compared with three other birds that have functional wings.

Concepts: Heart, Bird, Kiwi, Emu, Ostrich, Flightless bird, Ratite, Cassowary


The external appearance of the dodo (Raphus cucullatus, Linnaeus, 1758) has been a source of considerable intrigue, as contemporaneous accounts or depictions are rare. The body mass of the dodo has been particularly contentious, with the flightless pigeon alternatively reconstructed as slim or fat depending upon the skeletal metric used as the basis for mass prediction. Resolving this dichotomy and obtaining a reliable estimate for mass is essential before future analyses regarding dodo life history, physiology or biomechanics can be conducted. Previous mass estimates of the dodo have relied upon predictive equations based upon hind limb dimensions of extant pigeons. Yet the hind limb proportions of dodo have been found to differ considerably from those of their modern relatives, particularly with regards to midshaft diameter. Therefore, application of predictive equations to unusually robust fossil skeletal elements may bias mass estimates. We present a whole-body computed tomography (CT) -based mass estimation technique for application to the dodo. We generate 3D volumetric renders of the articulated skeletons of 20 species of extant pigeons, and wrap minimum-fit ‘convex hulls’ around their bony extremities. Convex hull volume is subsequently regressed against mass to generate predictive models based upon whole skeletons. Our best-performing predictive model is characterized by high correlation coefficients and low mean squared error (a = - 2.31, b = 0.90, r (2) = 0.97, MSE = 0.0046). When applied to articulated composite skeletons of the dodo (National Museums Scotland, NMS.Z.1993.13; Natural History Museum, NHMUK A.9040 and S/1988.50.1), we estimate eviscerated body masses of 8-10.8 kg. When accounting for missing soft tissues, this may equate to live masses of 10.6-14.3 kg. Mass predictions presented here overlap at the lower end of those previously published, and support recent suggestions of a relatively slim dodo. CT-based reconstructions provide a means of objectively estimating mass and body segment properties of extinct species using whole articulated skeletons.

Concepts: Estimator, Mass, Columbidae, Convex hull, Flightless bird, Columbiformes, Dodo, Raphinae


The evolution of the ratite birds has been widely attributed to vicariant speciation, driven by the Cretaceous breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana. The early isolation of Africa and Madagascar implies that the ostrich and extinct Madagascan elephant birds (Aepyornithidae) should be the oldest ratite lineages. We sequenced the mitochondrial genomes of two elephant birds and performed phylogenetic analyses, which revealed that these birds are the closest relatives of the New Zealand kiwi and are distant from the basal ratite lineage of ostriches. This unexpected result strongly contradicts continental vicariance and instead supports flighted dispersal in all major ratite lineages. We suggest that convergence toward gigantism and flightlessness was facilitated by early Tertiary expansion into the diurnal herbivory niche after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Concepts: Evolution, Bird, Speciation, Gondwana, Kiwi, Ostrich, Flightless bird, Ratite


One of the most startling discoveries in avian molecular phylogenetics is that the volant tinamous are embedded in the flightless ratites, but this topology remains controversial because recent morphological phylogenies place tinamous as the closest relative of a monophyletic ratite clade. Here, we integrate new phylogenomic sequences from 1,448 nuclear DNA loci totalling almost one million base pairs from the extinct little bush moa, Chilean tinamou and emu with available sequences from ostrich, elegant crested tinamou, four neognaths and the green anole. Phylogenetic analysis using standard homogeneous models and heterogeneous models robust to common topological artefacts recovered compelling support for ratite paraphyly with the little bush moa closest to tinamous within ratites. Ratite paraphyly was further corroborated by eight independent CR1 retroposon insertions. Analysis of morphological characters reinterpreted on a 27-gene paleognath topology indicates that many characters are convergent in the ratites, probably as the result of adaptation to a cursorial life style.

Concepts: Bird, Phylogenetics, Computational phylogenetics, Flightless bird, Ratite, Tinamou, Ratites, Palaeognathae


The moa (Dinornithiformes) are large to gigantic extinct terrestrial birds of New Zealand. Knowledge about niche partitioning, feeding mode and preference among moa species is limited, hampering palaeoecological reconstruction and evaluation of the impacts of their extinction on remnant native biota, or the viability of exotic species as proposed ecological ‘surrogates’. Here we apply three-dimensional finite-element analysis to compare the biomechanical performance of skulls from five of the six moa genera, and two extant ratites, to predict the range of moa feeding behaviours relative to each other and to living relatives. Mechanical performance during biting was compared using simulations of the birds clipping twigs based on muscle reconstruction of mummified moa remains. Other simulated food acquisition strategies included lateral shaking, pullback and dorsoventral movement of the skull. We found evidence for limited overlap in biomechanical performance between the extant emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) and extinct upland moa (Megalapteryx didinus) based on similarities in mandibular stress distribution in two loading cases, but overall our findings suggest that moa species exploited their habitats in different ways, relative to both each other and extant ratites. The broad range of feeding strategies used by moa, as inferred from interspecific differences in biomechanical performance of the skull, provides insight into mechanisms that facilitated high diversities of these avian herbivores in prehistoric New Zealand.

Concepts: Bird, New Zealand, Birds of New Zealand, Emu, Moa, Flightless bird, Ratite, Ratites


Late Quaternary extinctions and population fragmentations have severely disrupted animal-plant interactions globally. Detection of disrupted interactions often relies on anachronistic plant characteristics, such as spines in the absence of large herbivores or large fruit without dispersers. However, obvious anachronisms are relatively uncommon, and it can be difficult to prove a direct link between the anachronism and a particular faunal taxon. Analysis of coprolites (fossil feces) provides a novel way of exposing lost interactions between animals (depositors) and consumed organisms. We analyzed ancient DNA to show that a coprolite from the South Island of New Zealand was deposited by the rare and threatened kakapo (Strigops habroptilus), a large, nocturnal, flightless parrot. When we analyzed the pollen and spore content of the coprolite, we found pollen from the cryptic root-parasite Dactylanthus taylorii. The relatively high abundance (8.9% of total pollen and spores) of this zoophilous pollen type in the coprolite supports the hypothesis of a former direct feeding interaction between kakapo and D. taylorii. The ranges of both species have contracted substantially since human settlement, and their present distributions no longer overlap. Currently, the lesser short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata) is the only known native pollinator of D. taylorii, but our finding raises the possibility that birds, and other small fauna, could have once fed on and pollinated the plant. If confirmed, through experimental work and observations, this finding may inform conservation of the plant. For example, it may be possible to translocate D. taylorii to predator-free offshore islands that lack bats but have thriving populations of endemic nectar-feeding birds. The study of coprolites of rare or extinct taxonomic groups provides a unique way forward to expand existing knowledge of lost plant and animal interactions and to identify pollination and dispersal syndromes. This approach of linking paleobiology with neoecology offers significant untapped potential to help inform conservation and restoration plans. Un Eslabón Perdido entre un Loro No Volador y una Planta Parásita y el Papel Potencial de Coprolitos en Paleobiología de la Conservación.

Concepts: Animal, New Zealand, Pollination, Paleontology, Kakapo, New Zealand Lesser Short-tailed Bat, Mystacinidae, Flightless bird