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May 25 2012

NYIT Anatomy Faculty Member Published in Nature

fossils and birds

Illustration by Frank Ippolito, copyright AMNH '12

Old Westbury, N.Y.  (May 29, 2012)  -  When NYIT anatomy assistant professor and paleontologist Gaberiel Bever examines the fossil skulls of baby dinosaurs, he instantly recognizes many of the same features of modern-day bird skulls.

Large cavities for the brain and eyes relative to the rest of the body, for example, are among the features that birds and juvenile extinct dinosaurs share.

But the relationship between a bird’s development – known as its ontogeny – and its evolutionary history has been somewhat of a mystery. Clearly, it can be difficult to envision connections between giant meat-eating ferocious dinosaurs and diminutive finches at our backyard feeders, one of approximately 10,000 species of birds that exist today.

Differences aside, according to a new paper in Nature by a research team that includes Bever, the evolutionary process by which the skull of adult modern birds retains features of juveniles of their dinosaur ancestors likely played a role in the success birds as a lineage currently enjoy. The research team was led by scientists from Harvard University and included others from the University of Madrid, the University of Texas, and the American Museum of Natural History.

“We’ve known for many years that the data overwhelmingly support birds as living dinosaurs,” Bever said. “But what now is apparent is that the birds we see every day are, in many ways, modern versions of juvenile dinosaurs.  It’s not that birds just resemble them but that they retain those features as part of their adult anatomy. The big eyes we see in living birds are the same big eyes we see in juvenile extinct dinosaurs.”

Bever is the second NYIT faculty member from its College of Osteopathic Medicine to be published in Nature in the last eight months. Last September, Nature published neuroscientist Isaac Kurtzer’s research on complex reflexes. 

Bever is credited with helping to conceive of the bird-dinosaur research and process much of the data from computer tomography (CT) scans of skulls that formed the basis of the paper’s conclusions.  

“This is one of my major interests – the relationship between developmental and evolutionary histories,” said Bever, who joined NYIT in April 2011. “Our ontogenies reflect our evolutionary past but changes in development also drive evolutionary change.”

The team’s paper helps illuminate the interplay between the two, showing that, some of the features of birds’ skulls developed only to the same point as juvenile extinct dinosaurs.

“They reached the juvenile stage of their dinosaurian ancestors and then essentially stopped,” said Bever.

That evolutionary mechanism -- whereby development was curtailed – was illustrated through an extensive series of comparisons between the juvenile and adult skulls of modern alligators, extinct dinosaurs, and modern birds.

The scientists produced elaborate grids to compare variation in skull shapes using 45 “anatomical landmarks” or features – including nasal, eye, and cranial cavities -- among the modern and fossil specimens.  The data supported their hypothesis that the process by which modern birds resemble juveniles of their dinosaur ancestors is responsible for major evolutionary changes in bird development.

“It’s the first time anyone’s established that pattern – that structurally, the similarities are the product of a truncated developmental trajectory,” Bever said.

Some of the similarities include cavities that support the relatively large eyes and brains enabling   specialized and sophisticated visual and coordination systems that help make birds successful as a group.

“Once those changes are in place," said Bever, "you see, in retrospect, how they might be beneficial later on.”


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