Catalysis Meeting

A Deeper Look into the Avian Brain: Using Modern Imaging to Unlock Ancient Endocasts

PI(s): Amy Balanoff (Stony Brook University (Stony Brook,NY))
Daniel Ksepka (NESCent)
N. Adam Smith (NESCent)
Start Date: 17-Mar-2014
End Date: 30-Nov-2014
Keywords: morphology, neurobiology, paleontology, macroevolution

Avian neuroanatomical research is rapidly expanding in scope, fueled by advances in computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission tomography (PET), iodine staining techniques, gene expression studies, and discovery of new fossils bridging the transition from dinosaurs to birds. Together, these advances provide a new opportunity for synthesis through methodological integration as tissue-level work on avian brains opens the door to landmark-based segmentation methods for reconstructing subsurface brain partitions in fossil endocasts. Simultaneously, work on non-avian theropod dinosaurs is informing our understanding of the origins of the modern avian brain. A diverse international team of senior experts, early career scientists, and graduate students has been assembled to build new bridges between the study of extant avian neuroanatomy and paleoneuroanatomical work on endocasts through methodological integration. As one major product, team members will assemble volumetric data that are currently scattered across different databases or isolated in partially published datasets to conduct the largest comparative study of avian encephalization to date. Our team will apply phylogenetic comparative methods that leverage phylogenies including fossils to contextualize evolutionary changes in morphology and encephalization in birds. Combining endocast data from >350 species (including >50 extinct taxa), the scope of this study will span one of the classic transitions in evolutionary biology, the evolution of birds from non-avian theropod dinosaurs and the associated evolution of flight, as well as myriad profound transitions within crown Aves including four shifts to a marine diving ecology and nine losses of flight.