Comparative morphology of the avian bony columella.


In birds, the columella is the only bony element of the sound conducting apparatus, conveying vibrations of the cartilaginous extracolumella to the fluid of the inner ear. Although avian columellar morphology has attracted some attention over the past century, it nonetheless remains poorly described in the literature. The few existing studies mostly focus on morphological descriptions in relatively few taxa, with no taxonomically broad surveys yet published. Here we use observations of columellae from 401 extant bird species to provide a comprehensive survey of columellar morphology in a phylogenetic context. We describe the columellae of several taxa for the first time and identify derived morphologies characterizing higher-level clades based on current phylogenies. In particular, we identify a derived columellar morphology diagnosing a major subclade of Accipitridae. Within Suliformes, we find that Fregatidae, Sulidae, and Phalacrocoracidae share a derived morphology that is absent in Anhingidae, suggesting a secondary reversal. Phylogenetically informed comparisons allow recognition of instances of homoplasy, including the distinctive bulbous columellae in suboscine passerines and taxa belonging to Eucavitaves, and bulging footplates that appear to have evolved at least twice independently in Strigiformes. We consider phylogenetic and functional factors influencing avian columellar morphology, finding that aquatic birds possess small footplates relative to columellar length, possibly related to hearing function in aquatic habitats. By contrast, the functional significance of the distinctive bulbous basal ends of the columellae of certain arboreal landbird taxa remains elusive.