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Keywords:

  • neoptile feather;
  • avian phylogeny;
  • aves;
  • neoaves;
  • feather development

Abstract

Avian neoptile feathers are defined as the first feather generation, which covers the chick after hatching, and usually described as simple structures consisting of numerous downy barbs which are radially symmetrically arranged and come together in a short calamus. In contrast, in some birds (e.g., Anas platyrhynchos, Dromaius novaehollandiae) the neoptile feathers have a prominent rhachis, and therefore display clear bilateral symmetry. Because the symmetrical variety found in neoptile feathers is poorly understood, their morphology was studied in a more comprehensive and phylogenetic approach. Neoptile body feathers from over 22 bird species were investigated using light microscopy, SEM, and MicroCT. Characters such as an anterior–posterior axis, a central rhachis, medullary cells, and structure of the calamus wall were defined and mapped onto recent phylogenetic hypotheses for extant birds. It can be shown that bilaterally symmetric neoptile feathers (with a solid calamus wall) were already present in the stem lineage of crown-group birds (Neornithes). In contrast, simple radially symmetric neoptile feathers (with a fragile calamus wall) are an apomorphic character complex for the clade Neoaves. The simple morphology of this feather type may be the result of a reduced period of development during embryogenesis. To date, embryogenesis of neoptile feathers from only a few bird species was used as a model to reconstruct feather evolution. Because this study shows that the morphology of neoptile feathers is more diverse and even shows a clear phylogenetic signal, it is necessary to expand the spectrum of “model organisms” to species with bilaterally symmetric neoptile feathers and compare differences in the frequency of feather development from a phylogenetic point of view. J. Morphol., 2011. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.