Friday, January 25, 2013

Alula Summary

Here is a summary of material about the bird alula.


The alula, or bastard wing, is a small projection on the anterior edge of the wing of modern (and some ancient) birds. The word is Latin and means "winglet"; it is the diminutive of ala, meaning "wing". The alula is the freely moving first digit, a bird's "thumb," and is typically covered with three to five small feathers, with the exact number depending on thespecies. Like the larger flight feathers found on the wing's trailing edge, these alula feathers are asymmetrical, with the shaft running closer to anterior edge.
What is the origin of digits in birds? The question has long puzzled evolutionary biologists. Using genomic analysis, researchers have now solved a key part of this mystery.

Evolution adds and subtracts, and nowhere is this math more evident than in vertebrates, which are programmed to have five digits on each limb. But many species do not. Snakes, of course, have no digits, and birds have three.

Yale scientists now have a good handle on how these developmental changes are orchestrated in the embryo. But there is still one outstanding debate on birds: Which digits are they? A thumb with index and middle fingers, or the index, middle and ring fingers?
In five-digit vertebrates, the thumb comes from the precursor stem cells labeled pa. While birds have a digit that looks like a thumb, pa precursor cells die off during development and never produce a digit in adults. As a result, scientists have wondered whether precursor cells in pb can make a thumb.
Yale scientists have completed a genomic analysis of birds that reveals the answer. It is a hands-down "yes" -- even though the first bird digit develops where the index finger on a five-finger vertebrae should be.

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