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Inferring lifestyle for Aves and Theropoda: a model based on curvatures of extant avian ungual bones

By Savannah E. Cobb, William I Sellers

Posted 10 Jan 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/517375 (published DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0211173)

Claws are involved in a number of behaviours including locomotion and prey capture, and as a result animals evolve claw morphologies that enable these functions. Past authors have found geometry of the keratinous sheath of the claw to correlate with mode of life for extant birds and squamates; this relationship has frequently been cited to infer lifestyles for Mesozoic theropods including Archaeopteryx. However, claw sheaths rarely fossilize and are prone to deformation; past inferences are thus compromised. As the ungual phalanx within the claw is relatively resistant to deformation and more commonly preserved in the fossil record, geometry of this bone would provide a more useful metric for paleontological analysis. In this study, ungual bones of 108 birds and 5 squamates were imaged using X-ray techniques and a relationship was found between curvatures of the ungual bone within the claw of pedal digit III and four modes of life; ground-dwelling, perching, predatory, and scansorial; using linear discriminant analysis with Kappa equal to 0.69. Our model predicts arboreal lifestyles for certain key taxa Archaeopteryx and Microraptor and a predatory ecology for Confuciusornis. These findings demonstrate the utility of our model in answering questions of palaeoecology, the theropod-bird transition, and the evolution of avian flight.

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