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Keywords:

  • rictal bristle;
  • feather;
  • Herbst corpuscle;
  • mechanoreceptor;
  • tactile;
  • Aves

Abstract

Knowledge of structure in biology may help inform hypotheses about function. Little is known about the histological structure or the function of avian facial bristle feathers. Here we provide information on morphology and histology, with inferences for function, of bristles in five predominantly insectivorous birds from New Zealand. We chose species with differing ecologies, including: brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli), morepork (Ninox novaezealandae), hihi (Notiomystis cincta), New Zealand robin (Petroica australis), and New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa). Average bristle length corrected for body size was similar across species. Bristles occurred in distinct groups on different parts of the head and upper rictal bristles were generally longest. The lower rictal bristles of the fantail were the longest possessed by that species and were long compared to bristles of other species. Kiwi were the only species with forehead bristles, similar in length to the upper rictal bristles of other species, and the lower rictal bristles of fantails. Herbst corpuscles (vibration and pressure sensitive mechanoreceptors) were found in association with bristle follicles in all species. Nocturnal and hole-nesting birds had more heavily encapsulated corpuscles than diurnal open-nesting species. Our results suggest that avian facial bristles generally have a tactile function in both nocturnal and diurnal species, perhaps playing a role in prey handling, gathering information during flight, navigating in nest cavities and on the ground at night and possibly in prey-detection. These differing roles may help explain the observed differences in capsule thickness of the corpuscles. J. Morphol., 2011. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.