The anatomical relationships between the avian eye, orbit and sclerotic ring: implications for inferring activity patterns in extinct birds

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Activity pattern, or the time of day when an animal is awake and active, is highly associated with that animal's ecology. There are two principal activity patterns: diurnal, or awake during the day in a photopic, or high light level, environment; and nocturnal, awake at night in scotopic, or low light level, conditions. Nocturnal and diurnal birds exhibit characteristic eye shapes associated with their activity pattern, with nocturnal bird eyes optimized for visual sensitivity with large corneal diameters relative to their eye axial lengths, and diurnal birds optimized for visual acuity, with larger axial lengths of the eye relative to their corneal diameters. The current study had three aims: (1) to quantify the nature of the relationship between the avian eye and its associated bony anatomy, the orbit and the sclerotic ring; (2) to investigate how activity pattern is reflected in that bony anatomy; and (3) to identify how much bony anatomy is required to interpret activity pattern reliably for a bird that does not have the soft tissue available for study, specifically, for a fossil. Knowledge of extinct avian activity patterns would be useful in making palaeoecological interpretations. Here eye, orbit and sclerotic ring morphologies of 140 nocturnal and diurnal bird species are analysed in a phylogenetic context. Although there is a close relationship between the avian eye and orbit, activity pattern can only be reliably interpreted for bony-only specimens, such as a fossil, that include both measurements of the sclerotic ring and orbit depth. Any missing data render the fossil analysis inaccurate, including fossil specimens that are flat and therefore do not have an orbit depth available. For example, activity pattern cannot be determined with confidence for Archaeopteryx lithographica, which has a complete sclerotic ring but no orbit depth measurement. Many of the bird fossils currently available that retain a good sclerotic ring tend to be flat specimens, while three-dimensionally preserved bird fossils tend not to have a well-preserved sclerotic ring or a well-defined optic foramen, necessary for delimiting the orbit depth.

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