in du Toit, Chinsamy & Cunningham, 2020.
Some probe-foraging birds locate their buried prey by detecting mechanical vibrations in the substrate using a specialized tactile bill-tip organ comprising mechanoreceptors embedded in densely clustered pits in the bone at the tip of their beak. This remarkable sensory modality is known as ‘remote touch’, and the associated bill-tip organ is found in probe-foraging taxa belonging to both the palaeognathous (in kiwi) and neognathous (in ibises and shorebirds) clades of modern birds. Intriguingly, a structurally similar bill-tip organ is also present in the beaks of extant, non-probing palaeognathous birds (e.g. emu and ostriches) that do not use remote touch. By comparison with our comprehensive sample representing all orders of extant modern birds (Neornithes), we provide evidence that the lithornithids (the most basal known palaeognathous birds which evolved in the Cretaceous period) had the ability to use remote touch. This finding suggests that the occurrence of the vestigial bony bill-tip organ in all modern non-probing palaeognathous birds represents a plesiomorphic condition. Furthermore, our results show that remote-touch probe foraging evolved very early among the Neornithes and it may even have predated the palaeognathous–neognathous divergence. We postulate that the tactile bony bill-tip organ in Neornithes may have originated from other snout tactile specializations of their non-avian theropod ancestors.
Keywords: evolution of novel sensory systems, links between soft tissue and bone morphology, vestigial sensory organs, avian palaeoecology, ecomorphology, plesiomorphy in palaeognathous birds
|A modern species of remote-touch probing bird: a Hadeda ibis Bostrychia hagedash probes for food using remotetouch on a beach in South Africa, much in the same way the lithornithids would have done millions of years ago |
(photo: Peter Ryan)
C. J. du Toit, A. Chinsamy and S. J. Cunningham. 2020. Cretaceous Origins of the Vibrotactile Bill-tip Organ in Birds. Proc. R. Soc. B. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2020.2322
Sensing good vibrations: a remarkable sensory organ in the beaks of ancient fossil birds