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Birds inherited sense of smell from dinos: Study


April 13, 2011 - Washington

New research suggests that million years ago, birds boasted a better sense for scents.

Scientists at the University of Calgary, the Royal Tyrrell Museum and the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine tested the long-standing view that during the evolution from dinosaurs to birds, the sense of smell declined as birds developed heightened senses of vision, hearing and balance for flight.

The team compared the olfactory bulbs in the brains of 157 species of dinosaurs and ancient and modern-day birds.

They discovered that the sense of smell actually increased in early bird evolution, peaking millions of years ago during a time when the ancestors of modern-day birds competed with dinosaurs and more ancient branches of the bird family.

"It was previously believed that birds were so busy developing vision, balance and coordination for flight that their sense of smell was scaled way back," said Darla Zelenitsky, assistant professor of paleontology at the University of Calgary and lead author of the research.

"Surprisingly, our research shows that the sense of smell actually improved during dinosaur-bird evolution, like vision and balance."

In an effort to conduct the most detailed study to date on the evolution of sense of smell, the research team made CT scans of dinosaurs and extinct bird skulls to reconstruct their brains. The scientists used the scans to determine the size of the creatures' olfactory bulbs, a part of the brain involved in the sense of smell. Among modern-day birds and mammals, larger bulbs correspond to a heightened sense of smell.

The study revealed details of how birds inherited their sense of smell from dinosaurs.

"The oldest known bird, Archaeopteryx, inherited its sense of smell from small meat-eating dinosaurs about 150 million years ago," said Francois Therrien, curator of dinosaur palaeoecology at the Royal Tyrrell Museum and co-author of the study.

"Later, around 95 million years ago, the ancestor of all modern birds evolved even better olfactory capabilities," he added.

The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

ANI

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