04 December 2020

Word for the day: lithornithids

An abstract from the Proc. Roy. Soc. B:
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.
Photo via The New York Times, where the findings are discussed.  See also Wikipedia re lithornithids.

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