Here, I give you a long-planned post on the patella (“kneecap bone”) of birds, which was my Royal Society Senior Research Fellowship sabbatical project for 2012-13. This is only a brief introduction to the anatomical issues at hand, err, I mean at knee…
Stomach-Churning Rating: 6/10; mostly skeletons/fossils, but there are a few images of the dissection of a guineafowl, which is fresh and meaty.
The question I am exploring, first of all, is simply how the patella evolved, because it seems to be present in almost all living birds. However, it is absent in all non-avian dinosaurs, and indeed most Mesozoic birds, too. There is barely a hint of any precursor structure (a “patelloid”) in other reptiles, but lizards evolved their own patella that is quite different (a flattened lozenge, not a rectangular structure lying tightly confined in a “patellar groove” on the femur as it is in birds). Mammals evolved the knobbly, hemispherical kind of kneecap that we’re familiar with, possibly on several occasions (a different story!). So the patella evolved at least three times in the lizard, mammal and bird lineages– and possibly more than once in each of these groups. And that’s about it for almost 400 million years of tetrapod evolution, except for a few very rare instances in fossils and sort-of-patella-like things in some frogs or other weirdos.
Fossil birds exhibit no clear presence of a patella until we come very close to modern birds on the avian stem of the tree of life (see below). And then, suddenly in modern birds, there is a lot of variation and not much good documentation of what kind of patella exists. This makes it challenging to figure out if the patella is ancient for modern birds or if it evolved multiple times, or how it changed after it first evolved– let alone bigger questions of what the patella was “for” (performance benefits, functional consequences, etc.; and developmental constraints) in the birds that first evolved it.
Considering that the patella is such an obvious bone in some birds, and certainly affects the mechanics of the knee joint (forming a lever for the muscles that cross it; homologous to our quadriceps muscles) and hence locomotion, it is a compelling research topic for me.
What follows is a pictorial guide to the patella of some birds, in sort of an evolutionary/temporal sequence (see my earlier post for a recap of some major groups), with a focus on animals I’ve studied more intensively so far (with >10,000 species, there is a lot that could be done):
- The early Cretaceous bird Gansus (from the IVPP in Beijing), represented by many beautifully preserved specimens, all of which lack a patella. This absence is characteristic of other stunningly preserved fossil Chinese birds, indicating that this is almost certainly an ancestral absence of a patella, until…
- The famed Cretaceous diving (flightless) bird Hesperornis, from Wikipedia/Smithsonian. Note the massive, conical/crested patella in front of the knee (jutting up and overlapping the ribs/vertebrae close to the pelvis; see also below). That elongate patella is characteristic of many diving birds that use foot-propelled swimming; it has evolved many times in this fashion. Other hesperornithiform birds show some transformational states in their anatomy toward this extreme one.
Check this out! More Hesperornis (cast), with the femur on the left and the patella on the right. The bloody patella is almost as long as the femur! That’s nuts. With kind permission from the Natural History Museum, London.
- Exhibited ostrich (Struthio camelus) skeleton in left side view showing the patella (white arrow), on exhibit atThe Natural History Museum at Tring, Hertfordshire, UK. Ostriches are remarkable in that they have this elongate patella (actually a double patella; there is a smaller, often-overlooked second piece of bone) and yet are rather basal (closer to the root of the modern avian family tree)– however, they obviously are specialized in ways other than this double patella, most notably their very large size, flightlessness, and elongate legs. So the unusual patella is more likely linked to their odd lifestyle than a truly primitive trait, at least to some degree (but stay tuned: what happened with the patella in other members of their lineage, the ratites/palaeognaths, is much less well understood!).
- Note that ostriches and Hesperornis together hint that the presence of a patella might have been an ancestral trait for living birds, but their patellae are so different that the ancestral state from which they evolved must have been different, too; perhaps simpler and smaller. Hence we need to look at other birds…
- Skinned right leg of a Helmeted Guineafowl, Numida meleagris, above. That whitish band of tissue in the middle of the screen, on the front of the knee, is part of what is concealing the patella. That is an aponeurosis (connective tissue sheet, like a thin tendon) of the muscles corresponding to our “quads” or our tensor fascia latae, detailed more below. Guineafowl are fairly basal and well-studied in terms of their bipedal locomotion, so they are an important reference point for avian form and function.
- Right guineafowl leg, with patella exposed. Here I’ve peeled away that white band of tissue and associated muscles, which have been reflected toward the bottom of the screen (AIL and PIL labels corresponding to the anterior and posterior parts of the Iliotibialis lateralis muscle). The tip of the scalpel is contacting the patella. It’s not much to see, but lies atop the bright yellow fat pad that cushions it against the femur. You should be able to see a groove in the end of the femur just above that fat pad, which is where the patella sits and slides up and down as the knee moves/muscles contract. This is called the patellar groove, or sulcus patellaris.
- Left leg of another guineafowl (with right tibiotarsus behind it, on the left) showing the patellae in articulation; in medial (inside) and cranial (front) views, respectively. The patella is the little rectangular bit of bone in the top middle of the screen, interposed between femur (thigh) and tibiotarsus (shank). With kind permission from the Natural History Museum, London.
- Right leg of a Cape Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) from the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, showing the big lumpy patella in this wing-propelled diver. They still walk long distances on land, so presumably a patella plays some role in their gait, helping to explain its large size, which like the ostrich and Hesperornis seems to be a novel trait. Notice the groove across the patella, made by the tendon of the ambiens (like our sartorius/”tailor’s muscle”), which crosses from the inside to the outside of the leg via this route. This groove is often considered a useful phylogenetic character in modern birds, as its contact with the patella (sometimes via a hole, or foramen) varies a lot among species.
And so we complete our quick tour of the avian patella, in its grand variation and humble beginnings.
Why does an ostrich have a patella and a Tyrannosaurus, Edmontosaurus or Triceratops did not? Why were birds the only bipedal lineage to evolve a patella (mammals and lizards gained a patella as small quadrupeds), and why did some bipeds like kangaroos “lose” (reduce to fibrous tissue, apparently) their patella?
These are the kinds of mysteries my group will now be tackling, thanks to a generous Leverhulme Trust grant on sesamoid bone ontogeny, mechanics and evolution. My group is now Dr. Vivian Allen as the postdoc, Sophie Regnault as the PhD student, and Kyle Chadwick as the technician and MRes student, along with numerous collaborators and spin-off projects. We’re looking forward to sharing more! But for now, I hope that I’ve engendered some appreciation for the avian patella, as the silly title indicates (“fella” used in the general sense of anyone!). This work is all unpublished, but some of this should be out in not too long, in much more lavish detail! Much as the patella is the “forgotten lever “of the avian hindlimb, it is the fulcrum about which a substantial part of my research group’s activity now pivots.