Evolutionary Origin of Nocturnality in Birds


The diel activity patterns of living animals are observable, whereas knowing about those patterns in ancestral or extinct animals remains a challenge. Differences in the diel activity patterns of animals may have led to morphological and genetic differences in their visual systems. Recent developments in reconstructing the traits of ancestral animals offer the opportunity to improve our knowledge of the diel activity patterns of ancestral animals. One of the most important findings is the nocturnality of the common ancestors of living birds. Accumulating evidence based on morphological, behavioural and molecular data suggest the potential importance of nocturnality in their early evolution. The nocturnality of birds may be traced back to theropod dinosaurs and ancestral archosaurs. The possible long‐term history of nocturnality of these diapsid lineages, which parallels that of synapsid lineages (e.g. ancestral mammals), may have facilitated the evolution of mammal‐like characters (e.g. endothermy) in birds.

Key Concepts

  • Diel activity patterns are basic features of animal behaviour, and knowledge of the diel activity patterns of animals is important for understanding their evolutionary history.
  • Living birds widely show at least some form of partial nocturnal activities during their life cycles.
  • The common ancestor of living birds may have engaged in considerable nocturnal activities.
  • There may have been a long evolutionary history of nocturnality in diapsid lineages, paralleling that found in synapsid lineages (e.g. ancestral mammals).
  • Nocturnality may have shaped the evolution of diapsid lineages (e.g. birds).

Keywords: ancestral birds; dinosaurs; archosaurs; nocturnality; diurnality; cathemerality

Figure 1. Diel activity patterns and phylogeny of birds and their relatives based on published studies. Taxa with different diel activity patterns are shown in different colours. Red represents taxa that harbour truly nocturnal species, green represents taxa that contain species with partial nocturnal activities, and black denotes normally diurnal species with no known nocturnal activities. Martin G. (). Birds by Night. London: T & AD Poyser; Huchzermeyer FW. (). Crocodiles: Biology, Husbandry and Diseases. Cambridge: CABI Publishing; Schmitz and Motani ; Anderson and Wiens ; Wu .
Figure 2. The genes involved in rod and cone phototransduction pathways. Dark, white and grey rectangles indicate the genes involved in the phototransduction pathways of rods, cones and both, respectively. *shows gene loss of GNGT1 and PDE6A in both reptiles and birds. Wu Y, Hadly EA, Teng W et al. () Retinal transcriptome sequencing sheds light on the adaptation to nocturnal and diurnal lifestyles in raptors. Scientific Reports 6: 33578; Wu Y, Wang H, and Hadly EA () Invasion of ancestral mammals into dim‐light environments inferred from adaptive evolution of the phototransduction genes. Scientific Reports 7: 46542.


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Wu, Yonghua(Oct 2020) Evolutionary Origin of Nocturnality in Birds. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0029073]