The patella (kneecap) exhibitsmultiple evolutionary origins in birds, mammals, and lizards, and is thought to increase the mechanical advantage of the knee extensor muscles. Despite appreciable interest in the specialized anatomy and locomotion of palaeognathous birds (ratites and relatives), the structure, ontogeny and evolution of the patella in these species remains poorly characterized.Within Palaeognathae, the patella has been reported to be either present, absent, or fused with other bones, but it is unclear howmuch of this variation is real, erroneous or ontogenetic. Clarification of the patella's form in palaeognaths would provide insight into the early evolution of the patella in birds, in addition to the specialized locomotion of these species. Findings would also provide new character data of use in resolving the controversial evolutionary relationships of palaeognaths. In this study, we examined the gross and histological anatomy of the emu patellar tendon across several age groups from five weeks to 18 months.We combined these results with our observations and those of others regarding the patella in palaeognaths and their outgroups (both extant and extinct), to reconstruct the evolution of the patella in birds.We found no evidence of an ossified patella in emus, but noted its tendon to have a highly unusual morphology comprising large volumes of adipose tissue contained within a collagenous meshwork. The emu patellar tendon also included increasing amounts of a cartilagelike tissue throughout ontogeny.We speculate that the unusual morphology of the patellar tendon in emus results from assimilation of a peri-articular fat pad, and metaplastic formation of cartilage, both potentially as adaptations to increasing tendon load.We corroborate previous observations of a 'double patella' in ostriches, but in contrast to some assertions, we find independent (i.e., unfused) ossified patellae in kiwis and tinamous. Our reconstructions suggest a single evolutionary origin of the patella in birds and that the ancestral patella is likely to have been a composite structure comprising a small ossified portion, lost by some species (e.g., emus, moa) but expanded in others (e.g., ostriches). © 2014 Regnault et al.
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