The evolution of nest site use and nest architecture in modern birds and their ancestors

Mark C. Mainwaring, Iliana Medina, Bret W. Tobalske, Ian R. Hartley, David J. Varricchio, Mark E. Hauber

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The evolution of nest site use and nest architecture in the non-avian ancestors of birds remains poorly understood because nest structures do not preserve well as fossils. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the earliest dinosaurs probably buried eggs below ground and covered them with soil so that heat from the substrate fuelled embryo development, while some later dinosaurs laid partially exposed clutches where adults incubated them and protected them from predators and parasites. The nests of euornithine birds - the precursors to modern birds - were probably partially open and the neornithine birds - or modern birds - were probably the first to build fully exposed nests. The shift towards smaller, open cup nests has been accompanied by shifts in reproductive traits, with female birds having one functioning ovary in contrast to the two ovaries of crocodilians and many non-avian dinosaurs. The evolutionary trend among extant birds and their ancestors has been toward the evolution of greater cognitive abilities to construct in a wider diversity of sites and providing more care for significantly fewer, increasingly altricial, offspring. The highly derived passerines reflect this pattern with many species building small, architecturally complex nests in open sites and investing significant care into altricial young. This article is part of the theme issue 'The evolutionary ecology of nests: a cross-taxon approach'.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20220143
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1884
StatePublished - Aug 28 2023


  • birds
  • crocodilians
  • dinosaurs
  • evolution
  • nest architecture
  • nest sites

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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