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Jul 31 2013

NYIT Professor's Study in Nature: Dinosaur Brains Wired for Flight

Old Westbury, N.Y.  (July 31, 2013) — Many dinosaurs had large “flight-ready” brains long before some of them soared the skies as ancestors of modern birds, according to new research published today in Nature by a New York Institute of Technology scientist and three other researchers.
 
Assistant Professor Gaberiel Bever, Ph.D., of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, was part of a team that completed one of the first comprehensive studies detailing the relatively large size of birds’ brains and how they evolved.
 
The “bird brain” cliché is actually a misnomer; bird brains, like those of mammals, are relatively large compared to body size, Bever said, adding that the study’s conclusions also refute the common notion that the large forebrain of birds evolved as part its flight system.
 
“A close connection today doesn’t mean that the brain and fly behavior evolved together as an integrated system,” said Bever.  “Our study establishes that dinosaurs had these big brains before they could fly. Before they took to the air, they had a flight-ready brain: a brain with the neuronal capacity needed to navigate a three-dimensional space.”

Bever and colleagues from the American Museum of Natural History, Columbia University and the University of Texas at Austin used high-resolution computed tomographic (CT) scans and digital software to reconstruct three-dimensional models of the brains of the 100-million-year old Archaeopteryx, a winged species generally considered to be the earliest bird. The researchers also sampled living groups of birds and other extinct non-avian dinosaurs. (The CT scan at right shows a modern woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) with its brain cast rendered opaque and the skull transparent.)
 
“We not only looked at the brain as a whole but we were able to divide the brain up into its different regions,” said Bever.  “That allowed us to estimate how those different regions changed relative to each other, not only to body size. The forebrain is where a lot of the action occurs.”
 
Bever’s future studies will focus on answering more questions about bird brain evolution.
 
“It’s a difficult question to answer why anatomical structures evolved originally. How they are used by living creatures often doesn’t tell you the whole story” he said. “We’re still working on what factors may have been driving the original enlargement of the bird brain. But it doesn’t appear to be flight or the requirements of flight. That brain was in place before flight.”
 
The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.
 
 
About NYIT
New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) offers 90 degree programs, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees, in more than 50 fields of study, including architecture and design; arts and sciences; education; engineering and computing sciences; health professions; management; and osteopathic medicine. A non-profit independent, private institution of higher education, NYIT has 13,000 students attending campuses on Long Island and Manhattan, online, and at its global campuses. NYIT sponsors 11 NCAA Division II programs and one Division I team.
 
Led by President Edward Guiliano, NYIT is guided by its mission to provide career-oriented professional education, offer access to opportunity to all qualified students, and support applications-oriented research that benefits the larger world. To date, more than 95,000 graduates have received degrees from NYIT. For more information, visit nyit.edu.
 
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