Functional implications of species differences in the size and morphology of the isthmo optic nucleus (ION) in birds

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Gutierrez-Ibanez, Cristian I.
Iwaniuk, Andrew N.
Lisney, Thomas J.
Faunes, Macarena
Marin, Gonzalo J.
Wylie, Douglas R.
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Public Library of Science
In birds, there is a retinofugal projection from the brain to the retina originating from the isthmo optic nucleus (ION) in the midbrain. Despite a large number of anatomical, physiological and histochemical studies, the function of this retinofugal system remains unclear. Several functions have been proposed including: gaze stabilization, pecking behavior, dark adaptation, shifting attention, and detection of aerial predators. This nucleus varies in size and organization among some species, but the relative size and morphology of the ION has not been systematically studied. Here, we present a comparison of the relative size and morphology of the ION in 81 species of birds, representing 17 different orders. Our results show that several orders of birds, besides those previously reported, have a large, well-organized ION, including: hummingbirds, woodpeckers, coots and allies, and kingfishers. At the other end of the spectrum, parrots, herons, waterfowl, owls and diurnal raptors have relatively small ION volumes. ION also appears to be absent or unrecognizable is several taxa, including one of the basal avian groups, the tinamous, which suggests that the ION may have evolved only in the more modern group of birds, Neognathae. Finally, we demonstrate that evolutionary changes in the relative size and the cytoarchitectonic organization of ION have occurred largely independent of phylogeny. The large relative size of the ION in orders with very different lifestyles and feeding behaviors suggest there is no clear association with pecking behavior or predator detection. Instead, our results suggest that the ION is more complex and enlarged in birds that have eyes that are emmetropic in some parts of the visual field and myopic in others. We therefore posit that the ION is involved in switching attention between two parts of the retina i.e. from an emmetropic to a myopic part of the retina.
Sherpa Romeo green journal: open access
Isthmo optic nucleus , ION , Species differences , Birds , Retinofugal pathways , Retina
Gutierrez-Ibanez, C., Iwaniuk, A. N., Lisney, T. J., Faunes, M., Marin, G. J., & Wylie, D. R. (2012). Functional implications of species differences in the size and morphology of the isthmo optic nucleus (ION) in birds. PLoS ONE, 7(5), e37816. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037816