Did Dinosaurs Sing?

Very possibly not.

In this great age of dinosaur science, we are learning more and more about dinosaurs and other ancient species, including what they looked like, how they moved  and how they lived.

One thing we really know very little about is what dinosaurs sounded like.

We also have a sketchy understanding of the evolution of birds, i.e., the avian dinosaurs. Setting aside the messy “missing link” question (just how and when did birds diverge from their cousins the dinosaurs?), we know surprisingly little about the history of the key features of birddom:

  • Flight!
  • Feathers!
  • Eggs in Nests!
  • Song!

We know that there are early birds, contemporary with other dinosaurs, which had feathers (check) (and so did non-avian dinos) and nests (check) (and so did non-avian dinos), but we’re not sure about flight (probably some did, others may not have) (and non-avian dinos may also have flown).

But what about the most attractive feature of all, birdsong?

Our contemporary world is filled with bird and insect songs, at least if you can make the humans quiet down. Did the dinosaurs hear a chorus of birds? What might it have sounded like. And, if so, did non-avian dinos also sing? Or is that something uniquely avian?

Inquiring minds would like to know.

Julia A. Clarke,  and an international team of colleagues report this month a recent fossil find from Antarctica (which is a neat place to be paleontolgizing, no?), with the syrinx of an ancient bird [2]. The syrinx is the anatomical structure in birds that support their unique vocalizations, i.e., the honks, whistles, and songs.

The researchers note that very few remains of the syrinx are known in the fossil record, so this find is the oldest and only one from the time of the dinosaurs.

Interestingly, no similar finds are known for non-avian dinosaurs; which do have feathers and other features in common with birds–but not this distinctive sonic organ. This raises the possibility that dinosaurs could not chirp/honk/tweet, at least not the way birds do.

In fact, this particular specimen may suggest that modern vocal production might be a relatively recent evolutionary innovation, preceded by metabolic changes and feathered ornamentation. The researchers note that this possibility is interesting given current hypotehses about the importance of vocalization for the development of social structure and possibly the development of larger brains.

This fossil also suggests that there is a complicated evolutionary story to unravel, elucidating the relationships of social and mating behavior to brain, display, and vocal communication. Did birds sing, and then evolve brains to use vocal signals? Or were birds communicating to each other, and then singing evolved into a new channel?

These are deep and interesting questions about our favorite cohabitants on this planet.

In any case, it is possible that birdsong as we know it is a fairly recent development, and something that is unique to avians.

Cool!   As Patrick O’Connor comments,

“Clarke and colleagues have uncovered one key piece of that puzzle in a small bird fossil from Antarctica, foreshadowing the soundscape of things yet to come during avian diversification.” [2]

  1. Julia A. Clarke, Sankar Chatterjee, Zhiheng Li, Tobias Riede, Federico Agnolin, Franz Goller, Marcelo P. Isasi, Daniel R. Martinioni, Francisco J. Mussel, and Fernando E. Novas, Fossil evidence of the avian vocal organ from the Mesozoic. Nature, advance online publication 10/12/online 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature19852
  2. Patrick M. O’Connor,  Palaeontology: Ancient avian aria from Antarctica. Nature, advance online publication 10/12/online 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature19480

 

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