Evolution of vision and hearing modalities in theropod dinosaurs

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Science  07 May 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6542, pp. 610-613
DOI: 10.1126/science.abe7941

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Revealing behavioral secrets in extinct species

Extinct species had complex behaviors, just like modern species, but fossils generally reveal little of these details. New approaches that allow for the study of structures that relate directly to behavior are greatly improving our understanding of the lifestyles of extinct animals (see the Perspective by Witmer). Hanson et al. looked at three-dimensional scans of archosauromorph inner ears and found clear patterns relating these bones to complex movement, including flight. Choiniere et al. looked at inner ears and scleral eye rings and found a clear emergence of patterns relating to nocturnality in early theropod evolution. Together, these papers reveal behavioral complexity and evolutionary patterns in these groups.

Science, this issue p. 601, p. 610; see also p. 575


Owls and nightbirds are nocturnal hunters of active prey that combine visual and hearing adaptations to overcome limits on sensory performance in low light. Such sensory innovations are unknown in nonavialan theropod dinosaurs and are poorly characterized on the line that leads to birds. We investigate morphofunctional proxies of vision and hearing in living and extinct theropods and demonstrate deep evolutionary divergences of sensory modalities. Nocturnal predation evolved early in the nonavialan lineage Alvarezsauroidea, signaled by extreme low-light vision and increases in hearing sensitivity. The Late Cretaceous alvarezsauroid Shuvuuia deserti had even further specialized hearing acuity, rivaling that of today’s barn owl. This combination of sensory adaptations evolved independently in dinosaurs long before the modern bird radiation and provides a notable example of convergence between dinosaurs and mammals.

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