Tarsal development in birds: evidence for homology with the theropod condition



Theropod dinosaurs and birds share a specialized ankle joint in which the proximal tarsal series. the astragalus and calcaneum is braced against the tibia by an ascending process. This feature has been used since T. H. Huxley's time (1870) to support the proposal that birds evolved from dinosaurs. However, according to Martin, Stewart & Whetstone (1980), the avian tarsus is not homologous with that of theropods. They argue that while the ascending process in theropods is continuous with the astragalus in Archaeopteryx and all later birds, it is an independent ossification associated primarily with the calcaneum. A preliminary study of tarsal ontogeny in birds (McGowan, 1984), undertaken to resolve this problem, revealed two developmental pathways, one exemplified in ratites and the other in carinates. The ratite condition corresponded to that of theropods, the bony ascending process being part of the astragalus, while in carinates the corresponding process was part of the calcaneum. The present study, based on more extensive material, reveals that, although the carinate process becomes associated with the calcaneum during later development, there is evidence that it originates as a cartilaginous process from the astragalus and is therefore homologous with the ratite condition. As the avian tarsus is homologous with that of theropods, and of Archaeopteryx, it may be used to support a close phylogenetic relationship among them.