TitleThe evolution of endothermy in terrestrial vertebrates: Who? when? why?
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2004
AuthorsHillenius, WJ, Ruben, J
JournalPhysiological and Biochemical Zoology
Type of ArticleJournal Article

Avian and mammalian endothermy results from elevated rates of resting, or routine, metabolism and enables these animals to maintain high and stable body temperatures in the face of variable ambient temperatures. Endothermy is also associated with enhanced stamina and elevated capacity for aerobic metabolism during periods of prolonged activity. These attributes of birds and mammals have greatly contributed to their widespread distribution and ecological success. Unfortunately, since few anatomical/physiological attributes linked to endothermy are preserved in fossils, the origin of endothermy among the ancestors of mammals and birds has long remained obscure. Two recent approaches provide new insight into the metabolic physiology of extinct forms. One addresses chronic ( resting) metabolic rates and emphasizes the presence of nasal respiratory turbinates in virtually all extant endotherms. These structures are associated with recovery of respiratory heat and moisture in animals with high resting metabolic rates. The fossil record of nonmammalian synapsids suggests that at least two Late Permian lineages possessed incipient respiratory turbinates. In contrast, these structures appear to have been absent in dinosaurs and nonornithurine birds. Instead, nasal morphology suggests that in the avian lineage, respiratory turbinates first appeared in Cretaceous ornithurines. The other approach addresses the capacity for maximal aerobic activity and examines lung structure and ventilatory mechanisms. There is no positive evidence to support the reconstruction of a derived, avian-like parabronchial lung/air sac system in dinosaurs or nonornithurine birds. Dinosaur lungs were likely heterogenous, multicameral septate lungs with conventional, tidal ventilation, although evidence from some theropods suggests that at least this group may have had a hepatic piston mechanism of supplementary lung ventilation. This suggests that dinosaurs and nonornithurine birds generally lacked the capacity for high, avian-like levels of sustained activity, although the aerobic capacity of theropods may have exceeded that of extant ectotherms. The avian parabronchial lung/air sac system appears to be an attribute limited to ornithurine birds.

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