The anatomy of the bill tip of Kiwi and associated somatosensory regions of the brain: comparisons with shorebirds

Thumbnail Image
Cunningham, Susan J.
Corfield, Jeremy R.
Iwaniuk, Andrew N.
Castro, Isabel
Alley, Maurice R.
Birkhead, Tim R.
Parsons, Stuart
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Public Library of Science
Three families of probe-foraging birds, Scolopacidae (sandpipers and snipes), Apterygidae (kiwi), and Threskiornithidae (ibises, including spoonbills) have independently evolved long, narrow bills containing clusters of vibration-sensitive mechanoreceptors (Herbst corpuscles) within pits in the bill-tip. These ‘bill-tip organs’ allow birds to detect buried or submerged prey via substrate-borne vibrations and/or interstitial pressure gradients. Shorebirds, kiwi and ibises are only distantly related, with the phylogenetic divide between kiwi and the other two taxa being particularly deep. We compared the bill-tip structure and associated somatosensory regions in the brains of kiwi and shorebirds to understand the degree of convergence of these systems between the two taxa. For comparison, we also included data from other taxa including waterfowl (Anatidae) and parrots (Psittaculidae and Cacatuidae), nonapterygid ratites, and other probe-foraging and non probe-foraging birds including non-scolopacid shorebirds (Charadriidae, Haematopodidae, Recurvirostridae and Sternidae). We show that the bill-tip organ structure was broadly similar between the Apterygidae and Scolopacidae, however some inter-specific variation was found in the number, shape and orientation of sensory pits between the two groups. Kiwi, scolopacid shorebirds, waterfowl and parrots all shared hypertrophy or near-hypertrophy of the principal sensory trigeminal nucleus. Hypertrophy of the nucleus basorostralis, however, occurred only in waterfowl, kiwi, three of the scolopacid species examined and a species of oystercatcher (Charadriiformes: Haematopodidae). Hypertrophy of the principal sensory trigeminal nucleus in kiwi, Scolopacidae, and other tactile specialists appears to have co-evolved alongside bill-tip specializations, whereas hypertrophy of nucleus basorostralis may be influenced to a greater extent by other sensory inputs. We suggest that similarities between kiwi and scolopacid bill-tip organs and associated somatosensory brain regions are likely a result of similar ecological selective pressures, with inter-specific variations reflecting finer-scale niche differentiation.
Sherpa Romeo green journal: open access
Bill tip structure , Somatosensory regions , Kiwi , Shorebirds , Probe-foraging birds , Apterygidae , Scolopacidae , Threskiomithidae
Cunningham, S. J., Corfield, J. R., Iwaniuk, A. N., Castro, I., Alley, M. R., Birkhead, T. R., & Parsons, S. (2013). The anatomy of the bill tip of Kiwi and associated somatosensory regions of the brain: comparisons with shorebirds. PLoS ONE, 8(11), e:80036. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0080036