Quantitative functional imaging of the pigeon brain: implications for the evolution of avian powered flight

Amy Balanoff, Elizabeth Ferrer, Lemise Saleh, Paul M. Gignac, M. L. Eugenia Gold, Jesús Marugán-Lobón, Mark Norell, David Ouellette, Michael Salerno, Akinobu Watanabe, Shouyi Wei, Gabriel Bever, Paul Vaska

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The evolution of flight is a rare event in vertebrate history, and one that demands functional integration across multiple anatomical/physiological systems. The neuroanatomical basis for such integration and the role that brain evolution assumes in behavioural transformations remain poorly understood. We make progress by (i) generating a positron emission tomography (PET)-based map of brain activity for pigeons during rest and flight, (ii) using these maps in a functional analysis of the brain during flight, and (iii) interpreting these data within a macroevolutionary context shaped by non-avian dinosaurs. Although neural activity is generally conserved from rest to flight, we found significant increases in the cerebellum as a whole and optic flow pathways. Conserved activity suggests processing of self-movement and image stabilization are critical when a bird takes to the air, while increased visual and cerebellar activity reflects the importance of integrating multimodal sensory information for flight-related movements. A derived cerebellar capability likely arose at the base of maniraptoran dinosaurs, where volumetric expansion and possible folding directly preceded paravian flight. These data represent an important step toward establishing how the brain of modern birds supports their unique behavioural repertoire and provide novel insights into the neurobiology of the bird-like dinosaurs that first achieved powered flight.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20232172
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number2015
StatePublished - 31 Jan 2024


  • Maniraptora
  • Theropoda
  • avian flight
  • behavioural evolution
  • positron emission tomography


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