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The origin and early evolution of birds

  • KEVIN PADIAN (a1) and LUIS M. CHIAPPE (a2)
    • Published online: 01 February 1998

Birds evolved from and are phylogenetically recognized as members of the theropod dinosaurs; their first known member is the Late Jurassic Archaeopteryx, now represented by seven skeletons and a feather, and their closest known non-avian relatives are the dromaeosaurid theropods such as Deinonychus. Bird flight is widely thought to have evolved from the trees down, but Archaeopteryx and its outgroups show no obvious arboreal or tree-climbing characters, and its wing planform and wing loading do not resemble those of gliders. The ancestors of birds were bipedal, terrestrial, agile, cursorial and carnivorous or omnivorous. Apart from a perching foot and some skeletal fusions, a great many characters that are usually considered ‘avian’ (e.g. the furcula, the elongated forearm, the laterally flexing wrist and apparently feathers) evolved in non-avian theropods for reasons unrelated to birds or to flight. Soon after Archaeopteryx, avian features such as the pygostyle, fusion of the carpometacarpus, and elongated curved pedal claws with a reversed, fully descended and opposable hallux, indicate improved flying ability and arboreal habits. In the further evolution of birds, characters related to the flight apparatus phylogenetically preceded those related to the rest of the skeleton and skull. Mesozoic birds are more diverse and numerous than thought previously and the most diverse known group of Cretaceous birds, the Enantiornithes, was not even recognized until 1981. The vast majority of Mesozoic bird groups have no Tertiary records: Enantiornithes, Hesperornithiformes, Ichthyornithiformes and several other lineages disappeared by the end of the Cretaceous. By that time, a few Linnean ‘Orders’ of extant birds had appeared, but none of these taxa belongs to extant ‘families’, and it is not until the Paleocene or (in most cases) the Eocene that the majority of extant bird ‘Orders’ are known in the fossil record. There is no evidence for a major or mass extinction of birds at the end of the Cretaceous, nor for a sudden ‘bottleneck’ in diversity that fostered the early Tertiary origination of living bird ‘Orders’.

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Biological Reviews
  • ISSN: 1464-7931
  • EISSN: 1469-185X
  • URL: /core/journals/biological-reviews
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