On the origin of avian air sacs

Respir Physiol Neurobiol. 2006 Nov;154(1-2):89-106. doi: 10.1016/j.resp.2006.04.014. Epub 2006 Apr 30.


For many vertebrates the lung is the largest and lightest organ in the body cavity and for these reasons can greatly affect an organism's shape, density, and its distribution of mass; characters that are important to locomotion. In this paper non-respiratory functions of the lung are considered along with data on the respiratory capacities and gas exchange abilities of birds and crocodilians to infer the evolutionary history of the respiratory systems of dinosaurs, including birds. From a quadrupedal ancestry theropod dinosaurs evolved a bipedal posture. Bipedalism is an impressive balancing act, especially for tall animals with massive heads. During this transition selection for good balance and agility may have helped shape pulmonary morphology. Respiratory adaptations arising for bipedalism are suggested to include a reduction in costal ventilation and the use of cuirassal ventilation with a caudad expansion of the lung into the dorsal abdominal cavity. The evolution of volant animals from bipeds required yet again a major reorganization in body form. With this transition avian air sacs may have been favored because they enhanced balance and agility in flight. Finally, I propose that these hypotheses can be tested by examining the importance of the air sacs to balance and agility in extant animals and that these data will enhance our understanding of the evolution of the respiratory system in archosaurs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Sacs / anatomy & histology*
  • Air Sacs / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Birds / anatomy & histology
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Respiration*