Brain modularity across the theropod–bird transition: testing the influence of flight on neuroanatomical variation

Amy M. Balanoff, Jeroen B. Smaers, Alan H. Turner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Living birds constitute the only vertebrate group whose brain volume relative to body size approaches the uniquely expanded values expressed by mammals. The broad suite of complex behaviors exhibited by crown-group birds, including sociality, vocal learning, parental care, and flying, suggests the origins of their encephalization was likely driven by a mosaic of selective pressures. If true, the historical pattern of brain expansion may be more complex than either a gradual expansion, as proposed by early studies of the avian brain, or a sudden expansion correlating with the appearance of flight. The origins of modern avian neuroanatomy are obscured by the more than 100 million years of evolution along their phylogenetic stem (from the origin of the modern radiation in the Middle Jurassic to the split from crocodile-line archosaurs). Here we use phylogenetic comparative approaches to explore which evolutionary scenarios best explain variation in measured volumes of digitally partitioned endocasts of modern birds and their non-avian ancestors. Our analyses suggest that variation in the relative volumes of the endocranium and cerebrum explain most of the structural variation in this lineage. Generalized multi-regime Ornstein-Uhlenbeck (OU) models suggest that powered flight does not appear to be a driver of observed variation, reinforcing the hypothesis that the deep history of the avian brain is complex, with nuances still to be discovered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)204-214
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Anatomy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Aves
  • Theropoda
  • brain
  • endocast
  • modularity
  • neuroanatomy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Histology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


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