The relationship between sternum variation and mode of locomotion in birds

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Background: The origin of powered avian flight was a locomotor innovation that expanded the ecological potential of maniraptoran dinosaurs, leading to remarkable variation in modern birds (Neornithes). The avian sternum is the anchor for the major flight muscles and, despite varying widely in morphology, has not been extensively studied from evolutionary or functional perspectives. We quantify sternal variation across a broad phylogenetic scope of birds using 3D geometric morphometrics methods. Using this comprehensive dataset, we apply phylogenetically informed regression approaches to test hypotheses of sternum size allometry and the correlation of sternal shape with both size and locomotory capabilities, including flightlessness and the highly varying flight and swimming styles of Neornithes. Results: We find evidence for isometry of sternal size relative to body mass and document significant allometry of sternal shape alongside important correlations with locomotory capability, reflecting the effects of both body shape and musculoskeletal variation. Among these, we show that a large sternum with a deep or cranially projected sternal keel is necessary for powered flight in modern birds, that deeper sternal keels are correlated with slower but stronger flight, robust caudal sternal borders are associated with faster flapping styles, and that narrower sterna are associated with running abilities. Correlations between shape and locomotion are significant but show weak explanatory power, indicating that although sternal shape is broadly associated with locomotory ecology, other unexplored factors are also important. Conclusions: These results display the ecological importance of the avian sternum for flight and locomotion by providing a novel understanding of sternum form and function in Neornithes. Our study lays the groundwork for estimating the locomotory abilities of paravian dinosaurs, the ancestors to Neornithes, by highlighting the importance of this critical element for avian flight, and will be useful for future work on the origin of flight along the dinosaur-bird lineage.




Lowi-Merri, T. M., Benson, R. B. J., Claramunt, S., & Evans, D. C. (2021). The relationship between sternum variation and mode of locomotion in birds. BMC Biology, 19(1).

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