Nav: Home

Penguin brains not changed by loss of flight

March 01, 2016

Losing the ability to fly gave ancient penguins their unique locomotion style. But leaving the sky behind didn't cause major changes in their brain structure, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin suggest after examining the skull of the oldest known penguin fossil.

The findings were published in the Journal of Anatomy in February.

"What this seems to indicate is that becoming larger, losing flight and becoming a wing-propelled diver does not necessarily change the [brain] anatomy quickly," said James Proffitt, a graduate student at the university's Jackson School of Geosciences who led the research. "The way the modern penguin brain looks doesn't show up until millions and millions of years later."

Proffitt conducted the research with Julia Clarke, a professor in the Jackson School's Department of Geological Sciences, and Paul Scofield, the senior curator of Natural History at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the skull fossil is from.

The skull is from a penguin that lived in New Zealand over 60 million years ago during the Paleocene epoch. According to Proffitt, it likely lived much like penguins today. But while today's penguins have been diving instead of flying for tens of millions of years, the change was relatively new for the ancient penguin.

"It's the oldest [penguin] following pretty closely after the loss of flight and the evolution of flightless wing-propelled diving that we know of," Proffitt said.

The shape of bird skulls is influenced by the structure of the brain. To learn about early penguin brain anatomy, Proffitt used X-ray CT-scanning to digitally capture fine features of the skull's anatomy, and then used computer modeling software to create a digital mold of the brain, called an endocast.

The researchers thought that loss of flight would impact brain structure--making the brains of ancient penguins and modern penguins similar in certain regions. However, after analyzing the endocast and comparing it to modern penguin brain anatomy, no such similarity was found, Proffitt said. The brain anatomy had more in common with skulls of modern relatives that both fly and dive such as petrels and loons, than modern penguins.

It's difficult to know why modern penguins' brains look different than their ancestors' brains, Proffitt said. It's possible that millions of years of flightless living created gradual changes in the brain structure. But the analysis shows that these changes are not directly related to initial loss of flight because they are not shared by the ancient penguin brain.

However, similarities in the brain shape between the ancient species and diving birds living today suggest that diving behavior may be associated with certain anatomical structures in the brain.

"The question now is do the old fossil penguins' brains look that way because that's the way their ancestors looked, or does it have something maybe to do with diving?" Proffitt said. "I think that's an open question right now."
-end-
The research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

University of Texas at Austin

Related Evolution Articles:

A timeline on the evolution of reptiles
A statistical analysis of that vast database is helping scientists better understand the evolution of these cold-blooded vertebrates by contradicting a widely held theory that major transitions in evolution always happened in big, quick (geologically speaking) bursts, triggered by major environmental shifts.
Looking at evolution's genealogy from home
Evolution leaves its traces in particular in genomes. A team headed by Dr.
How boundaries become bridges in evolution
The mechanisms that make organisms locally fit and those responsible for change are distinct and occur sequentially in evolution.
Genome evolution goes digital
Dr. Alan Herbert from InsideOutBio describes ground-breaking research in a paper published online by Royal Society Open Science.
Paleontology: Experiments in evolution
A new find from Patagonia sheds light on the evolution of large predatory dinosaurs.
A window into evolution
The C4 cycle supercharges photosynthesis and evolved independently more than 62 times.
Is evolution predictable?
An international team of scientists working with Heliconius butterflies at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama was faced with a mystery: how do pairs of unrelated butterflies from Peru to Costa Rica evolve nearly the same wing-color patterns over and over again?
Predicting evolution
A new method of 're-barcoding' DNA allows scientists to track rapid evolution in yeast.
Insect evolution: Insect evolution
Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have shown that the incidence of midge and fly larvae in amber is far higher than previously thought.
Evolution of aesthetic dentistry
One of the main goals of dental treatment is to mimic teeth and design smiles in the most natural and aesthetic manner, based on the individual and specific needs of the patient.
More Evolution News and Evolution Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: The Power Of Spaces
How do spaces shape the human experience? In what ways do our rooms, homes, and buildings give us meaning and purpose? This hour, TED speakers explore the power of the spaces we make and inhabit. Guests include architect Michael Murphy, musician David Byrne, artist Es Devlin, and architect Siamak Hariri.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

What If?
There's plenty of speculation about what Donald Trump might do in the wake of the election. Would he dispute the results if he loses? Would he simply refuse to leave office, or even try to use the military to maintain control? Last summer, Rosa Brooks got together a team of experts and political operatives from both sides of the aisle to ask a slightly different question. Rather than arguing about whether he'd do those things, they dug into what exactly would happen if he did. Part war game part choose your own adventure, Rosa's Transition Integrity Project doesn't give us any predictions, and it isn't a referendum on Trump. Instead, it's a deeply illuminating stress test on our laws, our institutions, and on the commitment to democracy written into the constitution. This episode was reported by Bethel Habte, with help from Tracie Hunte, and produced by Bethel Habte. Jeremy Bloom provided original music. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.     You can read The Transition Integrity Project's report here.