What dinosaur and bird skulls tell us about brains

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Changes in the brain’s development and the shape of bones in the skull are linked, new research into the dinosaur-to-bird transition suggests.

The dramatic transition that occurred in reptiles millions of years ago was accompanied by profound changes in the skull roof of those animals. According to a new study, the transition also holds important clues about the way the skull forms in response to changes in the brain.

“…evolution is simpler and more elegant than it seems.”

“Across the dinosaur-bird transition, the skull transforms enormously and the brain enlarges. We were surprised that no one had directly addressed the idea that the underlying parts of the brain—the forebrain and midbrain—are correlated or somehow developmentally related to the overlying frontal and parietal bones,” says co-senior author Bhart-Anjan Singh Bhullar, an assistant professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University and assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology and vertebrate zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

“Our paper is a milestone in the way of approaching the morphological transition from reptile and dinosaur ancestors to extant birds,” says Matteo Fabbri, a graduate student in Bhullar’s lab and the first author of the study.

Although previous studies have shown a general relationship between the brain and skull, associations between specific regions of the brain and individual elements of the skull roof have remained unclear. This has led to conflicting theories on some aspects of skull development.

Bhullar and his colleagues set out to trace the evolution of brain and skull shape not simply in the dinosaurs closest to birds, but in the entire lineage leading from reptiles to birds. They discovered that most reptile brains and skulls were markedly similar to each other. It was the dinosaurs most closely related to birds, as well as birds themselves, that were divergent, with enlarged brains and skulls ballooning out around them.

“We found a clear relationship between the frontal bones and forebrain and the parietal bones and midbrain,” Bhullar says. The researchers confirmed this finding by looking at embryos of lizards, alligators, and birds using a new contrast-stained CT scanning technique.

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“We suggest that this relationship is found across all vertebrates with bony skulls and indicates a deep developmental relationship between the brain and the skull roof,” Bhullar says. “What this implies is that the brain produces molecular signals that instruct the skeleton to form around it, although we understand relatively little about the precise nature of that patterning.”

Bhullar adds: “Ultimately, one of the important messages here is that evolution is simpler and more elegant than it seems. Multiple seemingly disparate changes—for instance to the brain and skull—could actually have one underlying cause and represent only a single, manifold transformation.”

The paper appears in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Additional coauthors of the paper are from Yale University, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Harvard University, the University of Bath, the American Museum of Natural History, Iziko South African Museum, the University of Texas-Austin, and Imperial College London.

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Yale, Imperial College London, and grants from the National Science Foundation and the Templeton Foundation funded the research.

Source: Yale University